When I was a boy, it seemed to me that we in Churches of Christ bent over backward to deny anything having to do with Christmas. We saw it as a Catholic holiday with pagan overtones and we were somewhat dogmatic in our stance that 1) we don’t know when Jesus was born, and 2) we have no scriptural commandment to celebrate it. Both of those are true. I think it says a lot that only two of the four gospels contain a birth narrative. Both Mark and John begin with the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus.
The problem came when pretty much every family at our little church had a Christmas tree, covered their house in lights, exchanged gifts, and celebrated the holiday just like everyone else in town. It seemed to me to be either disingenuous or sending a mixed message.
At some point, there was an attitude change. We began to embrace Christmas as that time of year when the name Jesus or Christ is all over the place. Even atheists had to “consider Him.” Then, as our culture grew more and more secular, the so-called “War on Christmas” dominated the headlines and we in Churches of Christ, true to our nature, were up in arms over it! The very holiday we disdained in the 1960’s had become the holiday we were fighting for in the 21st century.
It’s amazing how things change over time. I noticed yesterday that our brothers across town are displaying 2 Corinthians 9:15 on their marquee: “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”
These are just random thoughts from my addled mind. Maybe you’ve had some of the same thoughts.
I ran across an article containing excerpts from a sermon by John MacArthur, president of Master’s College, a seminary in Santa Clarita, CA. Some of the members of the church where Deborah and I were members attended classes there. The sermon was called “The Meaning of Christmas.” He ends the sermon with his favorite Christmas story and I thought I would share it with you this week.
What is the meaning of Christmas?
It is not the date.
The idea that Jesus was born on December 25 is rather unlikely. According to the Bible, shepherds “were abiding in the field.” They didn’t do that in the winter. Scholars tend to agree that Jesus was most likely born in March or April. December 25 came from pagan observance of the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice. This was an old Roman holiday celebrated with two weeks of green trees, lighted candles, and gifts. Christians throughout the Roman Empire wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ so in 336 the Christian Emperor Constantine declared by fiat that December 25 would be Jesus’ day.
There is nothing in the Bible about December 25.
It’s not the Name.
“Christmas” is the shortened form of “ChristMass” established in 1038. Over time this mass evolved into celebrating the birth of Christ. In 1224 St. Francis of Assisi began to popularize the worship of baby Jesus in the manger as background for the worship of Mother Mary.
It’s not Santa Claus.
Nicholas was a 4th century bishop in the city of Myra who gave all of his possessions to the poor. He is said to have brought back to life two children who had been cut to pieces. People soon began to associate St. Nicholas as a giver of gifts and love who is particularly important to children. St. Nicholas came to the United States by way of Holland. Dutch children expected Santa to visit on December 5. Their custom was to place wooden shoes by the fireplace and Santa would fill them with goodies. (We fast-thinking Americans know you can get a lot more stuff in a sock than in a shoe!)
It’s not the Christmas cards.
Christmas cards have only been used for the last 100 years.
It’s not even the spirit of giving anymore.
Christmas is the spirit of indulgence. Have you been to the mall recently?
The real meaning of Christmas is Jesus.
The name “Jesus” means “Savior”. The real meaning of Christmas is that Jesus came to save people from their sins. He only comes to those who make room for Him in their lives—to those who receive Him as Savior and Lord. Personally, I’ve always thought of Luke 2:7 as the anti-Christmas: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” The Son of God came into world and Mary and Joseph couldn’t even find a room for Him.
A tattered and torn copy of Guideposts magazine from 35 years ago contains my favorite Christmas story. The story and the lesson are timeless.
A 9 year-old boy named Wallace Purling was in the second grade. He should have been in fourth. He was big for his age, and a little slow and clumsy. He had trouble keeping up with the rest of the students. He was also delightfully good natured. Everyone enjoyed it when Wally was around. He wanted to be a shepherd in the Christmas pageant. However he fit in much better as the innkeeper. His large size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph much more forceful.
The night of the pageant, no one more was more excited than Wallace Purling. He was enraptured as he peeked out from behind the curtain watching the performance. Finally, the time came for his scene. Joseph arrived, gently guiding Mary. Joseph knocked on the wooden door. Wally was there, waiting.
Wally said in a brash voice, “What do you want?”
“We seek lodging,” said Joseph.
“Seek it elsewhere. The inn is filled.”
“Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary.”
“There is no room in this inn for you!” Wally looked stern.
“Please, good innkeeper. My wife is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.”
For the first time the innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. A long pause followed. Surely, Wally had forgotten his next line. The audience was tense and embarrassed for Wally.
“Begone!” the prompter whispered Wally’s next line twice. Wally spoke automatically.
Joseph sadly placed arm around Mary and began to move slowly away. However, the Innkeeper failed to reenter his inn. He stood in the doorway watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes filling with tears. Suddenly the pageant became different from all others.
“Don’t go, Joseph. Bring Mary Back!” Wallace Purling’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room.”
May we not just find room for Jesus in our hearts this Christmas, but allow him to be that indwelling, overflowing well-spring of life every day for the rest of our lives.
“Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3).