Explaining the Significance of Christmas to Non-Christians

Last Wednesday evening I was asked to make a presentation at an interfaith gathering of Christians, Jews and Muslims about the meaning of Christmas to me as a Christian.  I knew the challenge of this by the flyer that advertized the event.  It used appropriate religious symbols and signs to represent the Jewish festival of Hanukah and the Muslim observance of Eid al-Adha.  But for Christmas there was a Christmas tree!  And so, understanding what I was up against, here is what I said –

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Connecting Our Faiths

“The Significance of Hanukah, Christmas and Eid al-Adha”

a Temple Shalom – December 5, 2012 – 7 pm  

Dr. Douglas B. Skinner – Northway Christian Church               ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 Christmas is not Christianity’s biggest day.  Now, you certainly wouldn’t know this from culture, and that’s why it’s important for me to begin this evening by making a clear distinction between “Secular Christmas” and “Spiritual Christmas.”  “Secular Christmas” is about shopping and sleigh bells, evergreen trees brightly decorated and snowmen in the yard when its 80 degrees outside, dancing sugarplum fairies and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. 

 Now, I’m no “Scrooge,” and so you’ll be getting no anti-culture diatribes from me here tonight.   “Bah-humbug” is just not in my vocabulary.  No, I’m a willing, even enthusiastic participant in the rituals of “Secular Christmas.”  But I do so with my eyes open wide, and with my heart carefully guarded.  You see, as much as I like getting presents, watching the “Christmas Story” movie over and over again – “You’ll shoot out your eye!” – and eating holiday goodies, I understand that these things are only remotely connected to “Spiritual Christmas.”  

 No, what culture has done with Christmas, and what the church intended by Christmas, are two very different things.  This is why all the Jewish kids I grew up with in Los Angeles in the 1950’s and 60’s had trees, and lights and opened presents on December 25th too.  “Secular Christmas” belongs to everyone in the culture.  If you’ve got a TV and go to the mall in December, then you’re a participant in “Secular Christmas.” It’s driven by commercial interests and the seasonal consumption of goods and services.  “Secular Christmas” is good for the economy and it promises to make people happy, and that’s just fine with me.  I will do my part.  But even as I do, I won’t confuse it with “Spiritual Christmas.”

 “Spiritual Christmas” is about what happened on a dark night in Bethlehem a long time ago.  It’s driven by faith and hope, and its focus is on the most basic claim that Christianity makes, namely, that in Jesus Christ the eternal God “became flesh and dwelt among us and we have beheld His glory, glory as the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  In Christianity we call this the doctrine of the “Incarnation.”   Here in Texas we all know what chili con carne is; it’s chili with “carne,” with meat.  And the doctrine of the “Incarnation” is about God with “carne,” God with meat.   Christians believe that God became flesh and dwelt among us. 

Now, in the Christian system, the Incarnation is not a stand alone doctrine. As the Apostle Paul put it in his second letter to the church at Corinth: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (5:19).  You see, it’s not just that God was in Christ that matters to us who are Christians; it’s why God was in Jesus Christ – namely “to reconcile the world to Himself.”  And this is why Christmas is not Christianity’s biggest day.  Easter is.

For the first 300 years of Christianity, Easter – Christ’s rising from the dead on the third day – and the Gospel events that both preceded – His sacrificial death on Calvary’s cross – and that proceeded from it – the Crucifixion; His return to the unity of the Godhead 40 days after being raised from the dead, the Ascension; and His continuing indwelling and empowering presence in the Spirit, poured out on Pentecost – these are the things thatthe church emphasized and celebrated. 

Right from the beginning of Christianity, as early as the Apostle Paul writing his first letter to the church in Corinth in 55 AD, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was understood to consist of three primary facts: “That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3-4).     All of the early church’s rituals and observances revolved around these three events, around what Jesus Christ had done to “reconcile the world to Himself.” 

They broke bread and shared a cup of wine to remember how Christ’s body had been broken and His blood shed for the forgiveness of their sins.  They were baptized – immersed in water – to show how they themselves had died to sin and been buried with Christ, so that they could be raised to walk with Him in newness of life (Romans 6:1-9).   And they gathered together as a community of faith on the first day of the week because that’s the day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  Every Sunday morning was a “little Easter” to those first Christians, and in the beginning that’s all they celebrated.  They had no special festivals or holy days other than Sunday, their weekly reminder of both what Jesus Christ had done in history, and what He was doing in their hearts.

Now, eventually this weekly observance of Christ’s resurrection each Sunday morning also became an annual observance each spring. The Gospels make it clear that the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ had taken place in conjunction with the Jewish Passover.  In fact, it was the Jewish Passover that provided the first Christians with many of the first frames that they used to make sense of what it was that Jesus the Christ had done for them on the cross.  He was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).  He was their “Passover sacrifice” (I Corinthians 5:7).  And it was this connection that eventually led the early church to celebrate Easter in the spring of the year during the Jewish Passover. 

When Passover rolled around on the calendar each year, Christians just automatically began to think about what had happened to Jesus Christ during a previous Passover in Jerusalem, and this is how the observance of Easter as a Holy day on the church calendar each year began.  It was their way of focusing the attention and devotion of believers on what Jesus Christ had done to reconcile the world to God.  It was only later that the church began to think in a sustained sort of way about who Jesus Christ truly was, about how God was actually “in Christ” doing this reconciling work. 

It’s when the church had finally worked through this question of Jesus Christ’s true nature, in the fourth and fifth centuries, that we begin to see the celebration of Christmas becoming a part of the church’s practice.  It was when the dual nature of Jesus Christ – how He is “fully God and fully man” – had been more thoroughly examined by the church that the Gospel events that undergird this doctrine of the Incarnation – the Christmas story – began to be celebrated by the church.  But even then, it was not done so in isolation, it was never viewed as an end in itself.  Consider the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ.

Luke’s is more familiar. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ from Mary’s point of view.  It’s lyrical and lovely, in fact, it sings.  There are three canticles in Luke’s nativity narrative that the church uses every single day in her cycle of morning and evening prayers.  When you think about “Spiritual Christmas,” it’s almost always the Gospel of Luke that paints the picture and scores the soundtrack – the enrollment when Quirinius was the governor of Syria, the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the birth in the manger, the shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night and the angels praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom He favors.” All of these details are Luke’s.

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of the birth of Christ from Joseph’s point of view.  It’s grittier, harsher; more interested in the complexities that Mary’s unexpected pregnancy created than the kind of details that can be painted on Christmas cards in lovely pastels.  Matthew tells us about the sinister plot of Herod to have the baby killed, the slaughter of the innocents in his pursuit of that plan and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt where they lived as refugees beyond Herod’s murderous reach.  There’s weeping but not much singing in Matthew’s account of the nativity.

When Joseph learned that Mary, his betrothed, was with child, his first instinct was to divorce her because of the public disgrace of it all.  This is not some sweet sentimental story that Matthew tells; no, it’s a scandal.   And it’s when Joseph had finally resolved to put Mary quietly away that Matthew tells us that an angel showed up in a dream to tell Joseph two things about the child conceived in Mary that he really needed to know.  The angel gave Joseph the two names by which Mary’s baby would forever be known: “Emmanuel” (1:23) and “Jesus” (1:21).  The name “Emmanuel” tells us something about who Mary’s baby is – “God with us” – and the name “Jesus” tells us something about what Mary’s baby was going to grow up to do – “to save His people from their sins.”  And it’s these two names from Matthew’s account of the nativity – “Jesus” and “Emmanuel” – that makes the eternal connection between Christmas and Easter.

Christmas is about how “God was in Christ.”   But, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” and this means that for Christians the Christmas doctrine of the Incarnation is in the service of the Easter drama of salvation: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Easter wasn’t set in motion on Good Friday; it didn’t ride in on the coat tails of Pontius Pilate. Easter was ushered in by three wise men and some lowing cattle. Easter’s story of redemption and reconciliation began at the manger. (http://deeperstory.com)

As Dag Hammarskjold wrote in his journal (Markings ~ 198) on Christmas Eve 1960 – “The Manger is situated on Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”  And this means that the best way to keep “Spiritual Christmas” clear and distinct from “Secular Christmas” is to never lose sight of why Christ came.  As the most theologically rich of our Christmas carols says –

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored; Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come, Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity,
                                                                                          Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.                                                                                                  
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die.
                                                                  Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.                                                                      
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

And that’s “Spiritual Christmas.”   DBS+

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