A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Keeping the Celebration of Christmas in Theological Perspective

My colleague at Ashland Theological Seminary, John Byron, wrote a helpful post a couple of days ago on defending Christmas. I've been pondering a post on the overkill of the Christmas celebration when one looks at the significance of the entire narrative of Jesus' life and ministry. John's post motivated me to finally write on the matter. Some of my points are also his, but I want to add my own perspective as well.

I need to say first that I celebrate Christmas. I like Christmas. I find it to be a meaningful celebration. Having said that, when one looks at the worship of the earliest Christians and where the New Testament places the central emphasis in reference to the life and work of Jesus Christ, our celebration of Christian holy days in the West really present the narrative of the gospel in distorted and lopsided fashion.

First, the New Testament places the central emphasis on the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Every book of the New Testament refers to Christ's resurrection. One of the central christological claims of the early Christians was "He is risen!" not "He is born!" Of the four Gospels, two-- Matthew and Luke-- have birth narratives, and in Galatians Paul only briefly mentions that Jesus was "born of woman" (4:4). I am certainly not suggesting that the birth of Jesus is unimportant. I am simply pointing out that it does have the central emphasis given to it in the way the New Testament writers focus on Jesus' cross and resurrection.

Second, incarnation is exceedingly significant, but it's significance is highlighted by Jesus' death and resurrection. Without Easter, incarnation makes no sense. Indeed, I submit that without resurrection, the claim of incarnation is irrelevant at best and more likely absurd in its worst form. The classic text on incarnation-- Philippians 2:5-11-- places cross and resurrection as the focal point and climax of incarnation. It is true that Paul mentions the Son being born in human likeness, but the "emptying" of Christ finds its importance in his humbling on the cross and the exaltation of resurrection.

Third, the church did not begin celebrating the birth of Christ until the fourth century A.D., some three hundred years after Jesus, and it took an additional 400 years after that for the feast day to be commonly observed in Europe. Easter, on the other hand, was already being celebrated as a specific annual feast day by the middle of the second century A.D. We also know that very early the Christians were gathering to worship on Sunday, The Lord's Day, not because it was the Sabbath (in Judaism the Sabbath is on Saturday), but because it was on the first day of the week that Jesus was raised from the dead. It is apparent, then, that the earliest Christians viewed the centrality of Jesus' resurrection in a way that they did not also understand his birth.

Again, none of this is to say that we should cease our Advent preparations and Christmas celebrations. I like the church calendar and adhere to it; for it tells a story of God's workings in the world that refutes the deceptive narratives that we human beings tell in order to comfort ourselves that perhaps we don't really need saving as much as just a little fine tuning. But what I hope is now clear in this post is that the time and energy we take to celebrate Christmas as contrasted with Easter is clearly out of whack with the New Testament witness. We do not take six to eight weeks to celebrate Easter, nor do we put the money and energy into it either. It seems as if we have put most of our Easter eggs in the Christmas basket. (And I haven't even touched on Good Friday. What does it say about the Protestant church in the West when worship attendance on Mother's Day is far better than it is on Good Friday?)

If any of this is right, then it also suggests what Dr. Byron was getting at in his post-- we need to stop fighting the so-called "Christmas Wars." If there is anything we Christians should be fighting with at this time of year, it is the greed and materialism that sucks in most of us. There is something out of kilter in celebrating the self-emptying of the Son of God with adding more stuff to our lives, most of which we don't really need.

I am certainly not siding with those who find Christmas decorations offensive. I need to say that if you are offended when you see a Christmas tree in the lobby of a bank, you need some serious therapy. At the same time, Christians do not need to get all wigged out as if Christmas is under attack when a school changes the name of Christmas break to winter break. The problem, it seems to me, is that for a long time Christians have been in practice much more centered on Christmas as their own birthday instead of Christ's birthday. When Christians tell me we need to keep Christ in Christmas, I tell them that Christ has not been in Christmas for a long time and it's our fault. Perhaps the non-Christians have finally realized that not any old atheist should casually be able to celebrate Christmas and many Christians have yet to receive the memo.

So as we celebrate this wonderful holiday, let's also keep our festivities in perspective. The cross casts a shadow over the manger; the new life of a just born infant is worth proclaiming because of the new life he gives in his resurrection.


PamBG said...

I don't think that there is anything "wrong" with Christmas celebrations.

It's just that I personally find all the obligations and expectations around them anxiety-provoking. I don't really like to cook or bake - although I'm reasonably good at both. Then there is the house decorating, the present buying and wrapping and the Christmas-card sending (I hate, loathe and despise writing Christmas cards and I hate the fact that we are wasting time, energy and trees on something that is nothing but a social expectation.)

If all of this was an enjoyable addition to Christmas, or we could simply "celebrate" in a way that actually made us feel celebratory rather than oppressed, it wouldn't seem so bad. There is always a huge temptation to just give it all up and invoke religious piety. Which would, at least, give me a chance to connect spiritually with Christmas.

(Thank you for the opportunity for a rant! *grin*)

Allan R. Bevere said...

Pam, I am pleased to offer this space as a "feel free to rant" zone. :-)

Gary L said...

Long time reader, but first time I've written. Along with the later date for the beginning of the Christmas celebration, it was also a "minor" holy day, if you will, with Epiphany being the culmination of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany festival cycle. I think that is congruent with what you wrote, since Epiphany is about the revelation of Christ, his life and his teachings and his promise, to the world.

Gary Hardwick
Associate Minister, First Christian Church, Norman, OK

Allan R. Bevere said...

Gary, thanks for the further and helpful information.