Now that Thanksgiving is officially behind us, the next holiday on the calendar is Christmas. Each year millions, maybe even billions of dollars get thrown after this holiday.
With our words we claim that we’re celebrating the birth of Christ. We do this by eating lavish meals, hosting and attending galas, buying expensive (and inexpensive) toys for ourselves and our children.
But where is Christ in our festivities?
When we’re busy enjoying ourselves, do we even remember the babe who came to this earth to die for our sins? For the next couple of posts I want us to spend some time thinking about the true meaning of Christmas and what it means for the Christian.
Let’s take a walk back to the year 312 A.D. Constantine the Great was Emperor. The story is told that one day on his way to a battle, he had a vision of a cross transposed on the sun. The cross had the words “in this sign you shall conquer”. After winning the battle, Constantine converted to Christianity. And you’re wondering what I’m rambling on about …. I’ll tell you.
Do you remember when you first accepted Jesus as Lord and Master of your life? Do you remember how it felt when you were the only person among your friends who was excited about the new life that you had found? Do you remember having to stop talking a certain way and doing certain things?
I do. I remember when I had to make the choice to keep my ungodly friends and risk losing my tenuous hold on Jesus or let go of my friends and pursue wholeheartedly after the Savior of my soul.
Well, Constantine had a similar challenge. Only, he had to convince an entire empire. An empire filled with people who were happily enjoying their pagan lifestyle and saw no reason to change. There were two huge festivals of the day: Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra.
This festival started out as a farming holiday – it was done to commemorate a successful harvest until it merged into a feast celebrating the agricultural god Saturn.
During the revelries all laws were relaxed and anything was allowed. People walked naked and indulged in sexual activities – rape was the norm. According to the Roman calendar, this feast was celebrated on December 17. With time it became a week-long celebration that ended on December 23.
Slaves were treated to great banquets at the hand of their masters and they were given temporary license to “game their masters”. Gifts were exchanged during this holiday and in general there was great revelry.
In a nutshell Mithra was supposedly born from a rock. At some point he conquered a bull which he slaughtered and ate. He shared the bull with Sol the god of the sun.
The significant thing about Mithra was that his birthday was celebrated from December 25 to January 1 (I know, it makes you think about the holiday season in a whole new light).
So now that we have the history, let’s pull it together. Constantine made the decision to attempt to convert his countrymen to Christianity. The only problem was – they were so used to these illicit festivals that they didn’t want to give them up. Constantine got a little creative.
Instead of celebrating the birthday of a god born from a rock, let’s celebrate the birth of a God born of a woman. Let’s do away with the rapes and the debauchery but let’s keep the feasting and the gift-exchange. I’m sure it was not as cavalier as I’m making it out to be and there must have been hours of agonizing thought that went into changing things enough so that the people could get the “best of both worlds”… but where was Jesus in all of that?
For that matter, where is Jesus in our modern day celebrations? In a world that has gone politically correct, where we can’t say “Merry Christmas” and must in fact say “Merry Xmas” or even “Happy Holidays” (effectively removing Christ from the holiday), where is Jesus?
Let’s remember his birth this way:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25).
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered everyone to his own city.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:1-7).
There was no great feast. No lavish ceremonies. Quite the contrary. The King of everything gave up all his riches to be born in a barn filled with animals. His first bed was a horse’s feeding station. The purpose of his birth? Service. How are we serving others as we celebrate the “birth of Christ”?
Food for thought: have you ever noticed that the focus of the gospels is not so much on the birth of Christ except as it was connected to the fulfillment of the prophecy to save humanity?
The stories focus much more on the life that was lived and the death that he suffered on the cross. Which leads to another question: are we living so that our lives could be seen as living sacrifice to God?
Yahweh, thank you for sending your Son to save us from our sins and give us the hope of eternal life. Help me not to get caught in the festivities of the season. Help us instead to focus on living lives that are pleasing to you.
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