What does Christmas mean for Christians, or Christ’s ones? Is the celebration of Christ’s birth central to our faith or can we do without it?
Two of our four Gospels do not include the story of Jesus’ birth and Matthew and Luke – which do – tell the story from significantly different perspectives. It seems that the celebration of the birth of Christ in a special day or season only commenced two or three hundred years after the time of Christ and the earliest church.
Because the church took over an existing (pagan) festival of the winter solstice to celebrate the feast of Christ’s nativity, some Christians suggest we should not celebrate Christmas. Without the events of Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus, I think it is fair to say that we probably would not be celebrating his birth. The apostle Paul only mentions Jesus’ birth to confirm his true humanity and descent from David, but in the context of Jesus Christ truly being the Son of God (Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4).
After Paul’s unexpected encounter with the risen Christ, ‘Jesus Christ: crucified and risen’, became the centre of his life, preaching and writing. He shared this focus with the original apostles and preachers, as the early chapters of Acts make clear.
The earliest followers of Jesus were transformed and empowered by the events of Easter and Pentecost to share their message and experience of Jesus the Christ, the risen, crucified one, with the known world. Although we worship and adore the Christ child, our ultimate faith is in the crucified and now risen Jesus, the one who has taken hold of us and whom we falteringly seek to follow by the help of his Spirit.
So, why should we celebrate Christmas and what might we gain from doing so?
Celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth reminds us that our faith is not based on speculation or inner experience, but on real historical events and a real historical person. Our God, the God of Israel and the universe, has actually ‘visited his people’ in the person of Jesus, as Zachariah puts it (Luke 1:68). Our God is an interfering God, an interventionist God, a meddler so serious about loving and restoring the people and creation which had gone astray and awry, that this God comes as a real human baby.
Regularly reviewing the accounts of the birth of Jesus also helps us see that his coming is an outworking of God’s longstanding plan and purposes. Matthew and Luke both use genealogies and fulfilled prophecies to point to this, but in different ways. Luke in particular uses poetry and song in the mouths of human and angelic participants to celebrate that the rescue, salvation and liberation, long promised by God, has at last arrived. Mary sings that God’s mercy has arrived, God’s strength is active in a new way and God’s help, promised as far back as Abraham, is now present.
Zachariah sings of the Mighty Saviour (horn of salvation) who was promised by so many ancient prophets, as now having arrived, and the covenant (think Moses, Exodus), and promise to Abraham being fulfilled in this visitation of God to whom his own newborn son, John, will bear witness. Simeon and Anna see in the baby Jesus God’s long promised action for the consolation of Israel and redemption of Jerusalem.
Celebrating Christmas enables us to enter more deeply into this story for ourselves. We offer our gratitude and praise to God for the coming of Jesus, together with Christian people around the world of traditions and situations both similar to, and sometimes very different from, our own. In our post-Christian, Australian context, celebrating Christmas can provide opportunities to enable people to reconnect with or explore more deeply the Christian faith and the one at its centre.
We share in the joy of the angels, of Mary, Elizabeth and Zachariah. We sing, perhaps more and more joyfully, than we do at most other times – in spite of the overuse of carols in shopping centres and the more trivial or irrelevant songs which celebrate the season without the reason. Because ‘a Saviour has been born to us’ we do sing ‘Glory to God in the highest’.
Our faith is enriched, challenged and stretched. Luke’s infancy songs speak as if the salvation and restoration of God is fulfilled in the arrival of this baby. Mary, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna looked forward and spoke as if the Messianic age had arrived in its fullness.
That challenges us, as almost 2 000 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we still see the world and its people – including the church and ourselves – so far away from the biblical vision of the Kingdom of God. We still long, pray and work for that ‘restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:21).
We are still in that space of the Kingdom being ‘already’ but ‘not yet complete’ as we allow the rule of this ‘new-born King’ to take over our lives.
We continue to work and pray for peace and justice as we celebrate the birth of our Prince of Peace, knowing that he is concerned with and involved in our everyday world, and that his forgiving, reconciling love is the most powerful force in human history. As we ‘know his salvation by the forgiveness of our sins’ as Zachariah put it, may we become agents of wider reconciliation.
So let us celebrate Christmas!
Let’s sing, feast, give gifts, and work for reconciliation, healing and wholeness. Let’s worship with the company of heaven and all God’s people on Earth as we sing ‘glory to the newborn King’. Let us too, respond with the faith Mary showed as she embraced the risky purposes of God.
May your Christmas be a blessed time.
Pastor John Tomkins, Remote Area Ministry in Carnarvon