In spite of declining belief in God and falling church attendance figures, Christmas continues to be celebrated in one form or another by huge numbers of people throughout the world. Probably only a small proportion of these do so for religious reasons, and far more simply look forward to its material pleasures – time off work, an excuse for abundant food and drink shared with family and friends, the excitement acquired from earliest childhood of giving and receiving presents. And in case anyone should waver in their enthusiasm for these things, the commercial world does its best to convince everyone that the more one buys the better Christmas will be.
It is well known that Christmas celebrations have their origin in pagan religion and not the Bible. December 25th was the last day of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Search the internet and you will find numerous accounts of how the early Roman Catholic church chose this day to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ so that converts would not feel that they were losing out on pagan celebrations. Saturnalia celebrations were noted for a debauchery totally inappropriate for followers of Christ, and yet their practices were often continued by those who regarded themselves as Christians. Over the years, other pagan traditions have been absorbed into the festivities, and the use of holly, mistletoe, Yule logs and Christmas trees can all be traced to pagan sources.
Many Christians today may feel that Christmas is an opportunity to express their faith by showing love and hospitality to others. It can be argued that charities receive more help at this time of the year in what is termed ’the season of good will’, yet it could also be argued that they could be better helped throughout the year if people had not wasted so much money on Christmas excess. Those who profess to follow Bible teaching have to answer the question, “Why, if God wished us to celebrate the birth of His Son, did he not reveal the date and manner of such celebration?” Surely it must also be asked how He views the materialism and excess that is so often a feature of Christmas revelry.
If God did not intend mankind to celebrate the birth of His Son as it is done today, what can we learn from the Gospel accounts of his birth?
Matthew’s account tells how an angel explained to Joseph how the child his espoused wife Mary was expecting was of the Holy Spirit, and that he should not abandon his intention of marrying her. He was told...
And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. [Matthew 1:21]
The name Jesus comes from Hebrew words expressing God’s purpose of salvation.
The next chapter of Matthew covers the quest of wise men from the east and confirms that Jesus is the fulfilment of Micah 5:2 – the future King of Israel...
...for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. [Matthew 2:5-6 ]
Luke’s account of the angel Gabriel’s conversation with Mary also confirms Jesus’ future role as king of Israel, the fulfilment of God’s promises to King David [2 Samuel 7]
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. [Luke 1:32-33 ]
In Luke chapter 2, angels, men and women all praise God that the Saviour of the world has been born. The account of Simeon is particularly beautiful, for it shows a man who clearly understood the Old Testament teaching about the Messiah, and the salvation from sin and death he would bring about. Seeing the infant Jesus was further confirmation of his beliefs so that he was happy to die, certain that one day he would be resurrected and enjoy the fulfilment of the prophecies about the Kingdom of God on earth...
And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. [Luke 2:25-32]
In none of the gospel records or any part of the New Testament, is there any suggestion that the birthday of Jesus Christ should be marked by any form of feasting or celebration,. Instead, Jesus instructed his disciples to remember the means by which the blessings announced at his birth would be achieved. We refer to his sacrificial death on the cross, to be regularly remembered by coming together and sharing symbols of his body and blood, as recorded in Luke 22:14-20, Acts 20:7, I Corinthians 11:20-30 and Hebrews 10:23-25.
There could not be a greater contrast between the way the world has chosen to remember what was announced at Christ’s birth and the way he has asked us to remember him as we wait for his return. The Lord Jesus Christ did not call for an annual season of peace and good will, nor an extravagant period of eating, drinking and present giving. He and his apostles exhorted us to live every day seeking to please God, loving our neighbour as ourselves, forgiving one another and even our enemies. For, in the words of Titus 2:11-14...
….the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
Similarly, the peace on earth that the heavenly host spoke of at the announcement of Christ’s birth [Luke 2:13-14] was not a vague aspiration for our present age, but confirmation of Old Testament prophecies yet to be fulfilled, such as Psalm 37...
For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the LORD, they shall inherit the earth. For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be. But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. [Psalm 37:9-11]
The limited pleasures of Christmas bear no comparison with the everlasting joys that await those who have sought to follow true Bible teaching and put on the Lord Jesus Christ in baptism.