For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders. And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. -- Isaiah 9:21
Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. --Philippians 2:9-11
Each year as we approach the celebration of our Lord's birth two things happen: The skeptics of the secular world bring out all the various historical arguments about how Christmas is really nothing more than a 4th century creation by a Roman emperor wanting to preserve the Pax Romana (the peace of the empire). And they are no doubt correct that the Christians of that time chose for the Feast Day of Jesus a date already taken by Mithrus, a pagan deity whose duty it was to bring back the light of the sun. Sunlight to Sonlight wasn't a big stretch.
Christians will respond with "Jesus Is the Reason for the Season" paraphernalia on everything from coffee cups to bumper stickers. It's not the commercialism, it's not the Santa Claus (how the Feast Day of Nicholas -- Dec. 6 -- became part of American Christmas is another story altogether), it's not the lights, it's not the food. It's Jesus. And we are no doubt equally correct in asserting that Christmas is about Jesus Christ first and foremost.
But the gap is still there. And for some reason, we're all pretty much comfortable with it. Christians spend as much money buying gifts for their friends and family as non-Christians. Non-Christians donate money to charities that help the homeless, the poor, the hungry as much as Christians. Perhaps the real magic of Christmas is the fact that for a short time each year, the gap that exists between believers and non-believers blurs. Some would say that Christians have become synchritists -- watering down the true faith by participating in pagan rituals, e.g. the Christmas day feast, secular songs, giving and exchanging gifts.
No, I don't believe that gift-giving is in itself a Christian thing. I know Christians who are deeply committed to celebrating Christmas with as little venture into the commercial realm as possible. They focus not on the giving and receiving of gifts but on the simple receiving first a promise and second a fulfillment and finally a culmination and vindication. We call these prophecy, incarnation and crucifixion/resurrection. We apply these words to only one person: Jesus Christ. We believe salvation was God's planned gift to the world and that God spoke of that plan through Isaiah and many others hundreds of years before Jesus came.
We believe that God kept that promise through the birth of Jesus, a story that both Luke and Matthew told about long before Constantine. Yes, the Christmas story was around in the first century. How it was celebrated we don't know, but considering that both Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with Jesus' birth, and considering that early Christians saw fit to preserve these gospels, the story that we tell in homes and churches is at the root of the season. The fact that it was placed on Dec. 25 by Constantine is irrelevant. Were it on Aug. 5 we'd still celebrate it. Jesus would still be the reason for the season. And I suspect there would still be some kind of secular celebration on or near the first day of winter. We all need something to lift our spirits during these short days and long nights. It has ever been so.
The fact that the two (Christmas and winter solstice) were joined 16 centuries ago may well have been God's plan. After all, it continues to provide Christians opportunities to share our version of the season with our friends and family who do not know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. As we stand in line with our purchases, we can speak of Christ's redeeming love, or we can simply invite someone to come to Christmas Eve worship. As we hand out food at a food bank we can speak of God's unconditional grace for all people. This season allows two cultures to intersect peacefully. We can use it to become visible examples of God's love to others. We can help our neighbor put up her reindeer and his Frosty the Snowman, and we can accept their help in putting up our nativity. Little connections abound this time of year. Let's make the most of them.
- Rev. Ron Jetter is pastor of Sunnyside's Our Saviour's Lutheran Church.