I grew up in a fellowship that was incredibly conflicted during the Christmas holiday. We decorated our homes with trees with a star on top. We put nativity scenes up. We made cookies. We sang “Away in the Manger,” “What Child is This?,” and “Silent Night.” Then during the month of Christmas we had annual sermons on why we do not celebrate Christmas. We heard that Catholicism stole Christmas from the pagans and December 25 was really about Saturnalia. These sentiments regarding Christmas, along with the myth of Saturnalia, continue to be paraded as truth among the descendants of the Reformed branch of the Protestant Reformation. But Christmas is neither pagan in origin nor is it theologically, or doctrinally, empty. Christmas teaches us. (For a good look at how December 25 became associated with the birth of Jesus see Dr. William J. Tighe’s, Calculating Christmas: The Story of Behind December 25).”
It is important to remember the actual environment of the early church. Our unconscious ideas often skew our understanding of both Scripture and the early church. In the early church, no one owned a New Testament, much less a whole Bible. Christian homes did not have dozens of Bibles in them. In fact, it is not certain that most congregations would collectively own an entire New Testament. Literary works were incredibly expensive. So how was the faith passed on? How was understanding passed on?
The early church followed the precedent set by Israel, they followed a calendar. The “Old Testament” calendar directed the the life of Jesus, though we American disciples often fail to recognize this. The calendar was not just about keeping the days straight. The calendar taught a way of life. The Roman calendar proclaimed the important events in the history of Rome. The calendar in Persia proclaimed the acts of various monarchs. The calendar in the Hebrew Bible preaches the mighty acts of grace by Yahweh. So we read about the Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles, Weeks, Purim and Hanukkah. The festivals tell the Story of God: God creates the world, God deliveres by grace Israel, God walks with Israel in the wilderness, God provides food and gives torah, God protects from annihilation, and God redeems his temple. The calendar teaches the content of the faith.
The early church did the same thing. They used time, the calendar, to teach what God has done. The first day of the week, Easter, Pentecost … and what became known as Christmas. God began a new creation, God renews his covenant and makes us his people, … and God became one of us. The calendar was a way to teach the Christian faith. The calendar guided the teaching of the faith to the masses. Just as it had done in Israel and the life of Jesus himself.
From a theological point of view, what does Christmas (the terminology is not important, that term was not used by early Christians since they did not speak English) teach? What might be of importance that a second, third and fourth century believer needed to know. What might have been in dispute? What might Christmas counter?
Jesus the Jew
For starters, Christmas answers the Marcionites. The Marcionites wanted to sever Christian faith from anything Jewish. The “Old Testament” was the sacrificial lamb of the Marcionites, it had to go. The Christian Church has always struggled with the ghost of Marcion. Through various ways and means the Hebraic origin and content of the faith has been minimized and outright rejected at times. The most glaring example is Nazism. Many Church Fathers struggled with anti-semiticism. But to their credit the Fathers knew it was, and is, impossible to have Jesus the Messiah without David and Abraham coming along for the ride.
Christmas, the season of the birth of Jesus, proclaims as clearly as anything ever could several radically important truths to the Christian faith. First and foremost, Jesus is, not was, a Jew. The Gospel cannot be divorced from Israel. It is hard to find something that stresses the Jewishness of the Messiah more than telling a story of his circumcision in the temple on the eighth day of his life. “Christmas” tells the good news of the One “born King of the Jews.”
In a culture that was rabidly anti-Jewish, including many of the Church Fathers, Christmas puts the breaks on rejection of Israel and the Hebrew Bible. To reject the history of Israel is tantamount to rejecting Jesus himself. Christmas preaches this.
The birth narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, Christmas, reveal that the Gospel begins with what people today call the “Old Testament.” There is no Good News without Abraham, David … the Messiah is, before he is anything else, the King of the Jews. This is the ever present doctrinal message of Christmas. We must never forget this.
Jesus is a Real Human Being
Christmas answers the Gnostics. The Gnostics believed they had liberated Christianity from its carnal or fleshy Jewishness by making it truly “spiritual.” All that matters is our spirit or soul. In Gnosticism the material realm of creation is a problem to be freed from. The physical world is really transient and of no ultimate value. What matters is being redeemed from the pain, misery, suffering, and more importantly the appetites of this physical world. Salvation, according to gnosticism, is the ultimate “spiritual” liberation where we rejoin deity in some spiritual realm. If matter does not matter then the human body of flesh does not either.
Christmas smacks this heresy with as much force as it does Marcionism. Christmas declares that the “spiritual” Logos (Word) became flesh itself. It became “matter.” Christmas declares that humans do not become gods but that God became Human. The Word did not merely take up temporary flesh. The word became flesh.
It is hard to be more “in the flesh,” to be more human, than to be inside a womb. To be born into a specific Jewish family and into a specific Jewish town. It is hard to be more “in the flesh,” to be more human, than having your diaper changed, nurse from your mother, be circumcised on the eighth day, to go through all the growing pains of being human.
Christmas stresses, in neon lights, that the God who Created the material world, is the God who now lives in the material world. Salvation is not from materiality as the Gnostics declared. Salvation is of the whole creation that God made.
Like Marcionism, Gnosticism has been a constant threat in the modern post-Enlightenment Christian faith. There are many parading around under the banner of “sound doctrine” whom the Gnostic Valentinus would praise.
Christmas was not the selling out to paganism. Christmas, that is stress on the Incarnation and birth of Christ as essential to redemption, in fact began rather independently in geographically diverse places like Africa, Syria, and Turkey and for good reason. People needed to be taught about Jesus the Messiah and the nature of salvation. These are just two reasons that what become known as Christmas found its way into Christian calendar.
So we see Jesus really is the “reason for the season.” It matters that Jesus is the King of the Jews. If he is not then we have the wrong Jesus. And it matters that God loves the world. If our god does not then we may have never actually heard “the Christmas gospel.”