Are you for or against Christmas?
While this may appear to be an unusual question, there are two divergent spirits among us that may provide some basis for asking it. Some people go “all out” in this celebration of Christmas, while others claim that we make too big a deal out of it, and that it should be observed with a worship service and nothing more. How should we celebrate Christmas? Should we set up a Christmas tree, decorate the house, buy presents, go caroling, prepare special food, and invite all the relatives over for a good time? Or should we “just” go to church on Christmas Day to hear a sermon on the incarnation, similar to what we do on Pentecost or Ascension Day? How should we remember Christ’s birth?
Christ’s birth is part of the gospel and therefore ought to be commemorated. We must be careful, though, to guard against allowing the world to influence our celebration of this holiday.
For examples of responses to Christ’s birth, we can look in the Bible. Upon receiving news of Christ’s upcoming birth, Mary thanked God for His mercy toward her in particular and toward His people in general. At the time of the Savior’s birth, the angel of the Lord could not contain his joy but brought the news to a group of bewildered shepherds outside Bethlehem. He also gave them a sign to direct them to the manger. Soon a multitude of the heavenly host joined the angel with the now familiar refrain: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
With joy overcoming their fear, the shepherds rushed to the manger to see Jesus and verify the news. Next, they spread the news, returned to their work (not even a day off!), and praised and glorified God for the things they had seen and heard.
Being blessed with a pre-Pentecost dose of the Holy Spirit, Simeon thanked God for allowing him a look at the Redeemer and prophesied concerning Christ’s work. Anna the prophetess also thanked God and directed others to look to Jesus for redemption. The magi celebrated by rejoicing, by worshiping Christ, and by giving Him gifts.
What principles can we gather from these reactions? First, we see that the faithful recognized God’s condescension, that is, they saw the deity of Jesus Christ; second, they saw deliverance from their sin; third, they thanked and praised God for His Gift; fourth, they were eager to spread the news; and finally, their reactions were characterized by unbounded joy.
There was also a reaction of unbelief. Upon hearing the news that there was a King born in Bethlehem, Herod was troubled to the point that he ordered a mass execution of all the young children in Bethlehem. He wanted to see the hope of a Messiah King smothered and forgotten.
What does all this say about how we should remember Christ’s birth?
Consider the reactions of the eyewitnesses to the Christ. Would a decorated tree have led them to a greater appreciation of the salvation that God had prepared for them? Would colored lights have heightened their comprehension of the mystery of God living in the flesh among them? Would the exchange of gifts have caused them to more clearly understand the ultimate gift that Christ would eventually give when he died on the cross? My answer to all these questions is, “I doubt it.” On Christmas we celebrate a spiritual event. If any material part of our commemoration draws our attention away from the spiritual significance of the event, I believe it doesn’t belong there.
Here comes the ticklish part. How do I feel about Christmas decorations, lights, trees and the rest? I realize that they’ve been part of our Christmas celebrations for a long time, and that tradition counts for something in our circles, but I’ll be straightforward. I think they cloud the spiritual wonder of Christmas. I don’t think it’s wrong to set up trees in our houses and decorate them. I don’t think it’s wrong to give and receive presents at any time of the year. Getting together with one’s family is always a good idea, and there is certainly nothing wrong with eating a special meal. What connection, though, do these material things have with such a spiritual event as the incarnation? I’m concerned that we spend altogether too much time with these things that – let’s face it – have nothing to do with the Baby in the manger.
Why do we single out Christ’s birth and give it more emphasis than any other New Testament holy day? True, this event in Christ’s life was announced by angels, but then all the other New Testament events we celebrate were accompanied by heavenly phenomena as well. Without the incarnation, there could never have been a death, resurrection, ascension or outpouring of the Spirit, but neither would the incarnation have significance all by itself either. We could make arguments for emphasizing any one of the others. For instance, don’t you agree that although Christ’s birth and His passion are necessary, it is on Resurrection Sunday that we celebrate His victory over death? Where then are our Easter trees and our Easter parties? For that matter, isn’t Ascension Day also a joyful holy day? When’s the last time your family had an Ascension Day family reunion? Shouldn’t we go Ascension Day caroling to reflect our joy at having an Intercessor in heaven? Shouldn’t we exchange gifts on Pentecost when God poured out His gift of the Spirit?
Without de-emphasizing the spiritual significance of Christ’s birth, perhaps we need to spend more time commemorating the other aspects of His work.
I guess no treatment of the subject of Christmas decorations would be complete without a reference to Jeremiah 10:3 & 4: “For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” Some people appeal to this as a clear scriptural prohibition of erecting Christmas trees in our homes. I would disagree, though, since the context shows that this refers to the making of idols, wood just happening to have been the material chosen for the image. I have been in the homes of many Christians around Christmas time, and have yet to see one person bowing down to their Christmas tree.
If we are to be separate from the world, though, we must celebrate Christmas differently. Look around and you will see that unbelievers also celebrate Christmas by putting up Christmas trees, decorating their houses with lights and exchanging presents. Can they see that our celebration is any different?
In much of nominal Christendom, the trappings of the holiday have accomplished what Herod could only try to do: they have smothered the memory of the Messiah King Who came to rescue His people from sin. The “true meaning of Christmas” has become a material emphasis on being kind to each other, buying presents for poor children, getting together with your family and spreading good cheer to all you meet. Noble as these things sound, they are empty if they eclipse the hope of deliverance from sin. We have a redeemer Who paid for our sins and Who is soon returning to bring us to a better life. The great privilege we as believers have is to transcend the material and celebrate the spiritual significance of the incarnation.