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Redeeming Christmas

by Bryan Smith, Ph.D.

manger scene

I love Christmas; I always have. But through the years, some of my dearest friends have held the holiday at arm’s length. They view the unconverted Ebenezer Scrooge as a sympathetic character, and they see his change of heart as a tragic turn of events. None of these friends, ironically, are unbelievers. In fact, they point to their faith in Christ as the main reason for not enjoying the season.

Their thesis goes something like this: Christmas is not a Christian holiday, and Christians should be suspicious of it—at the very least. The following are arguments often used to support the thesis.

First, Christmas focuses on an unimportant part of Christ’s life. If we make much of Christmas, we’re likely making little of Christ’s death and resurrection. Seen in this light, Christmas is a subtle tool of Satan, who uses the holiday to con people into thinking they’re honoring God while they avoid the gospel.

Second, Christmas is embraced by the ungodly in our culture. You know a person by the company he keeps, and Christmas has a long history of keeping company with the sort of people who would never darken the doors of our conservative churches. How holy is “O Holy Night” if Mariah Carey can sing it without compunction?

Third, Christ could not have been born on the twenty-fifth of December. We are told that when our Lord was born, “there were . . . shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). Since historians assure us that shepherds ventured out with their flocks only from April to October, a late-December birth for Christ is out of the question. And if Jesus was not born at this time, what really are we celebrating on December 25?

That question leads naturally to the final argument: Christmas has its roots not in the birth of our Lord but in pagan festivals. For the ancient Romans, the month of December was filled with series feasts related to Sol Invictus (“the unconquered sun”). The winter solstice was venerated by the Romans as a time to rejoice in the return of the sun to its heroic march over darkness and cold. The celebrations were also a time to reflect on a golden age of peace, justice, and equality.

Many of the Christmas customs observed today were common among the Romans during this time: giving gifts to children, lighting candles, and perhaps even decorating evergreen trees. So, say the critics, Christmas is not about the birth of Jesus but about preserving paganism.

The following paragraphs are my response to these arguments. But before I begin, I need to insert a caveat. My goal is not to bind anyone’s conscience regarding what we do with the twenty-fifth of December. Paul warns us against judging each other based on how we observe special days and festivals (Col. 2:16). My goal is to free consciences bound by misunderstandings. I believe Christians are free to celebrate Christmas. And if they are convinced the celebration will strengthen their love for God and for their fellowman, they should celebrate it. If they are not so convinced, they should feel free to leave it alone.

First, the Bible does emphasize the birth of Christ. Two of the longest chapters in the New Testament (Luke 1-2) are devoted to telling the story of this birth. These chapters indicate that reflecting on these events is a good and pious thing to do. Mary responded with thoughtful reflection: “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Furthermore, though some modern Christians may focus on Christ’s birth to the neglect of His death and resurrection, no one has to. We should view His birth as symbolic of His entire incarnation. And I have found that this is a very easy and natural thing to do. Some of the best-known carols of the season demonstrate that it is not at all difficult to move from the nativity to the heart of the gospel in just a few words. The following are good examples: “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “We Three Kings,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Second, the use of a good thing by the ungodly does not make that good thing evil. This truth is easy to accept if we move our consideration from Christmas to a cherished song like “Amazing Grace.” What worldling hasn’t sung Newton’s song? Should we therefore stop singing it?

Rather than ignoring elements of our faith that unbelievers find fascinating, we should take their interest as an opportunity to engage our culture for the sake of the gospel. When unbelievers look at the Christian religion, they find certain aspects of it attractive. They then pick and choose what they like and celebrate it, but leave the rest behind. We should recognize that what they like—forgiveness, a future better than the past, joy that never ends, the restoration of torn relationships—are important Christian themes and they belong to the believer, not the unbeliever.

We should also recognize that this picking and choosing offers the Christian a point of contact. The Christian can say, “What you love is Christian, but you cannot possess what you love by picking and choosing. You must embrace all that God has said. This means you will have to die to your worldly loves. But remember that in the Christian religion, after death comes resurrection.” The song “Amazing Grace” is a fine case-in-point. The entire Christmas season is an even better one.

Since arguments three and four are related, I will deal with them together. First, I admit that the early church may have chosen December 25 because of its proximity to the winter solstice and not because of its connection to Christ’s birth. But what does this prove? Christmas is not about Christ because Christ was not born on Christmas Day? That’s like saying that Thanksgiving Day is not about giving thanks because the first Thanksgiving was not celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Christ probably was not born in December, but there is, I think, good reason to celebrate His birth at that time.

Since we do not know when the incarnation began, why not celebrate it at a time of the year well-suited to considering the significance of the incarnation? In the grand story of human history, the birth of Christ is the winter solstice. From Creation until the coming of Christ, our race had been spiraling downward in sin, degradation, and cruelty. But then God gave us His Son—the Light of the world (John 9:5), the Sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2). In the light of His life, Christ halted the advance of darkness. In Christ’s death and resurrection, the Father raised for us His Sun of righteousness. And in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, He has sent this unconquered Sun into the whole world. I am happy to celebrate Christmas as the ultimate Sol Invictus festival.

But what about Roman paganism? Aren’t we compromising with unbelief by using the winter solstice in this way? I will answer that question with a question: Who owns the winter solstice—or any day for that matter? The ungodly create nothing. Their sin is that they twist God’s good gifts into idols. One of the great joys of being a child of God is that we may take these idols and twist them back. One way to accomplish this with the winter solstice is to do just what the Christian church has done—twist the day away from paganism and toward God by celebrating the incarnation on that day. This is not compromise; it is redemption.

But what about the excesses of modern Christmas celebrations? Christmas these days is dominated by drunkenness, materialism, silly attempts to replace Christ, and bad theology. But, again, we need to remember that the problem is not Christmas but the twisting of Christmas. The believer should not retreat in the face of these excesses. He should instead look for opportunities to twist this day back. A hearty embrace of Christmas as a celebration of the incarnation seems to me to be a great way to accomplish this worthy goal.

In conclusion, I wish to kindle a little Christmas spirit by quoting a Christmas poem. It is not a Christmas carol; it comes from Luke 1. The following is Zacharias’s prophecy, which he wrote when he named his son, the forerunner of Jesus Christ. Note the sol invictus theme at the end.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;
For he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us
In the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets,
Which have been since the world began:
That we should be saved from our enemies,
And from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
And to remember his holy covenant;
The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,
That he would grant unto us,
That we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies
Might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before him,
All the days of our life.

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest:
For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God;
Whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79)

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