by The Reverend Bill Keane
To the world, readiness for Christmas has everything to do with pies baked and purchases made, and little to do with spiritual preparation. The all too typical approach often seems to be a prescription for a pressurized holiday where Jesus' birth occasions feelings of anxiety or depression. Therefore, it is important for Christians to model something different, where the arrival of Our Savior can be recaptured as a time for joy, especially in the midst of difficult times, as opposed to an attempt to drown out or deny trying circumstances.
Tonight, instead of being at a shopping mall, or on a laptop adding to an Amazon cart, we are modeling something different. Hopefully our participation this evening will enhance our holiday in the awareness that if Jesus is the Savior, we don't have to be.
1) Why was December 25th chosen as Christmas Day, near the Winter Solstice?
No one actually knows the exact date of Jesus' birth, and there are those who suggest that shepherds in a field, keeping watch over their flocks at night would not be a normal December occurrence in Israel, when it would be far too chilly. The first recorded celebration of Our Lord's Nativity on December 25th was in 336 AD, quite some time after the original event.
At this point in history, Constantine had accepted Christ, and when the Roman Emperor became a follower, it had enormous ramifications regarding official celebrations within Christianity. No one can say for sure why December 25th was first set down, or who came up with the idea, but there are cultural connections in Rome that may give us a clue.
Saturnalia was a huge Roman holiday related to Saturn, the god of sowing seed (and the linguistic origin of "Saturday"). It was celebrated from December 17th to December 24th, and was the most popular Roman festival. During this time, all work and commerce were suspended, slaves were allowed to practice free speech, and presents were exchanged.
By placing Christmas on the 25th of December, just as a pagan celebration was concluding, the birth of Jesus was being proclaimed. Saturnalia wasn't being banned, it was being used as a platform, the old giving way to the new. Personally, I think this is a stroke of political genius, if someone was interested in shifting a whole population from pagan deities into Christian faith.
Yet, there are theological ramifications too!
(Read: Luke 1:26-27)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
(Read: John 3:28-30)
You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
No one knows how much Constantine had read the Gospels, but by placing Jesus' birth at the Winter Solstice, a great symbolism was set in the calendar! John the Baptist was conceived six months earlier than Jesus. Hence, "In the sixth month" refers to John's conception in Elizabeth.
However deliberate it may or may not have been, with the demarcation of December 25th as the day celebrating Christ's birth, this means that the Light of the World's Nativity was placed when the light of the sun begins to increase. This leaves the birth of John the Baptist, six months earlier, on June 24, as the light in the northern sky begins to decrease.
Were these dates chosen with these astral realities in mind? We'll have to wait for a final answer in Heaven! Personally, I think it was a happy "accident" of determination by people, fulfilling an eternal truth of God.
2) So, when was Jesus born?
When we see AD it means Anno Domini: the year of Our Lord. Our current calendar wasn't started in Bethlehem! The Gregorian Calendar, as we know it, is the most commonly used dating system in the world today. Everyone uses Jesus as a reference in time, whether they realize it or not! Our calendar was first devised by Dionysius Exiguus in 525AD, but not in common use for another few centuries. Pope Gregory made it official in 1582.
So, was Jesus born at the start of year 1AD? Ahh, no. Alas, it's not easy to look back 500 years and place a moment in history that no one wrote down exactly as it was happening.
So, what do we know?
(Read: Matthew 2:16, 19-20)
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
Archaeological historians place the date of the death of King Herod the Great at 4BC. Based on the Wise Men's ascertainment, Herod himself thought Jesus could be up to two years of age. So moving two years back from Herod's passing at 4BC, Jesus could well have been born around the time of 6BC. If that's the case, it sets up an amazing stellar correlation consistent with the Scripture.
(Read: Matthew 2:1-2)
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
The Wise Men, or Magi, were Babylonian astronomers/astrologers (not kings). They measured and predicted the movements of the stars and planets with enormous precision, and they "read" the celestial bodies too, investing them all with meaning.
The Magi were Zoroastrians (a faith established by Zoroaster who was born around 1000BC). They were monotheists, very attracted to the concept of a Savior, promised in the Jewish faith. In their "stellar language," Jupiter and Saturn represented the Jewish God and the Messiah, with the constellation Pisces representing Israel.
From 7BC into 6BC, a rare triple convergence of Jupiter and Saturn took place, within the constellation of Pisces, which could well be "read" as meaning that a Messiah (Christ) had come to Israel. A convergence is when planets in the night sky appear on Earth to be converging and then separating. The reality of this planetary triple convergence is not a guess, it is a fact. Today, with computers, it's quite easy to depict what the night-time sky looked like at any time in history, from anywhere. In terms of the stars and planets, we know what the Wise Men saw.
Fact is, a 7BC Babylonian clay tablet, now held in the British Museum, records the Saturn/Jupiter triple convergence. That's not beyond a reasonable doubt, it's beyond any doubt. Based on these facts, blended with Scripture, along with the death of Herod in 4BC, in the assumption that the Wise Men were using this triple convergence as a touchstone, this places the year of Jesus' birth anywhere from 6 to 4BC, with a bias towards 6BC.
Most importantly, in terms of what we know was in the sky, leading up to Jesus' birth, it looks as though the Wise Men answered a call to Christ that was out there in front of everyone, but only a few understood the meaning.
• Sound like Christmas in America today?
• Are we as Wise as those who first came to Christ?
• Isn't that really the point of this whole study, all of us coming to Christ?
3) Is it OK to remove the toxicity/negativity from your life, even if it is loved ones or family?
(See Luke 2:8-20 selections)
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising
God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The original Christmas account is one of joy; one not laced with cynicism. This is an important thing for all of us to consider! Christmas is not supposed to be a predictable point of angst.
It is healthy, and even necessary to admit that toxicity and negativity do exist. Jesus came to save us from real sin, not imaginary problems. His first Biblically noted encounter with an "unclean spirit" is recorded in Mark 1:23, in a synagogue! Essentially, he tells this guy to shut up and get out. In "turning the tables" Jesus probably saved that synagogue.
In any number of families, memories abound regarding Christmases that became memorable largely because of behavioral dysfunction. One would think that at holidays, funerals or weddings, toxic dynamics would be put on hold. Fact is, these realities are just as likely to be magnified, not diminished.
Short answer, big picture... Considering Jesus' response to a scenario in which a whole synagogue would be held captive to one dysfunctional individual, it seems reasonable that we should not allow toxic people in our lives to destroy our family celebration of Christ's birth.
Christmas is a time to praise Jesus, and this can be done in millions of ways. Gifts, meals, parties, etc. can all be expressions of knowing we have a Savior. But if there are people or dynamics keeping us from undertaking or enjoying this praise, there is nothing in the properly read Scripture that encourages anyone to put Jesus aside in favor of anything hurtful or harmful.
Christmas is about taking control so that our celebration of Jesus is exactly the one we feel at peace with. He's our Savior! He is not a prop to be used in fostering a damaging agenda.
• How is it that Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, has been associated with allowing and enabling toxic and hurtful behavior -- in His name?
The default position for most Christians is to bend over backwards to include difficult people. But this gracious tendency should not be stretched to the point of making the birth of a Savior a painful and patently negative event.
However, on a related note, for many people, Christmas can conjure up feelings associated with painful experiences of loss and grief that are completely normal and totally OK. When we gather around the Tree, it is always a bittersweet experience missing those who are no longer present, for whatever reason.
These feelings should not be denied. When honestly faced and explored, they are perhaps the best way to discover what it means that, in Jesus Christ, we do indeed have a Savior from sin and death. Indeed, this is the joy that has come for all the people.
4) Is Merry Xmas OK?
Some think "Merry Xmas" is an abomination, when in reality it is based in praise of Jesus Christ! In our culture, when something is "x'ed out" it's either a bad thing, or a fill in the blanks assumption. "X" in Greek is the letter Chi, often used in ancient times to represent Christ, because Chi was the first letter in the Greek rendition of the word "Christ". So, classically speaking, "Xmas" is similar to using a fish symbol to represent Christ, without fully spelling His name.
5) Is the word "Christmas" OK?
Looking at the Latin origin of "mass" (mittere) it usually means to "send". So a word meaning Christ-sent fits well with a day celebrating Jesus' arrival on Earth.
(Consider Galatians 4:4)
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman...
Indeed, there are some Christians who get all "torqued-up" about certain words or dates they feel make Our Lord's birth too pagan related, or too Roman Catholic. When considering the Scripture, whether eating meat sacrificed to idols, or using wine for Communion, Christians have always enjoyed a freedom to recast and reframe all sorts of things that could be abused into being wonderful ways of proclaiming faith. No one has to say "Merry Christmas!" Yet, leaving superstitious fear or bigotry behind, surely there is nothing wrong with saying it.
6) How many chromosomes did Jesus have?
(See Philippians 2:8; 1John 4:2-3 & 2John 7,11)
And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.
If Jesus was "found in human form" and indeed "came in the flesh", He had the same number of chromosomes in each cell of His body as any of us do (46). Jesus truly is "Emmanuel", God with us! Apart from the chromosomal biology, we have a deep Christian theology being articulated at Christmas.
• Why would the unseen, eternal God become human? What does it mean?
(Consider the opening words of the Nicene Creed, articulated in 325AD)
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made human...
Deep theology, for sure, but an even more profound love story. God became human for our benefit, not His! The Incarnation is an event where God didn't need to learn anything about us, rather we are blessed to learn about God! In Christ, we are afforded an intimate and personal endorsement of each and every one of us.
The Gnostic communities tried to negate this doctrine. They accepted Christ's divinity. It was His humanity they rejected! In effect, they pushed God away, even as Adam & Eve ran away, hiding from their Maker!
Christmas is an endorsement of your humanity, in all its frailty. It is a redemption of the dynamic we know all too well as the "human predicament".
(Consider some of the words from, "Once in Royal David's City")
He came down to earth from heaven, Who is God and Lord of all, And His shelter was a stable, And His cradle was a stall; With the poor, and mean, and lowly, Lived on earth our Savior holy.
For he is our childhood's pattern; Day by day, like us He grew; He was little, weak and helpless, Tears and smiles like us He knew; And He feeleth for our sadness, And He shareth in our gladness.
7) How do you explain to a child that some children receive no presents? Why doesn't Santa bring them anything?
We need to pose this question because the beautiful Christmas Story about God coming to be Our Savior has been swallowed up by a myth that can't be materially sustained. Instead of Good News come for all the people, we have literally "bought into" a fantasy about who's "naughty or nice". Within implausible scenarios, some things can't be explained.
Here's a run-on sentence, with a very long answer. While we all need to raise and teach our children according to what works in our home, one option is not to impart any lore that may create more problems than solved, raising questions that cannot be happily answered, while sustaining a fairy-tale that eventually gets exposed for what it is.
Fact is, St. Nicholas was an amazing 4th Century Bishop, whose actual story need not be transformed into something more akin to cartoons than Christianity. With a little imagination, Santa Claus can be spoken about as a representation of St. Nicholas, without bringing in elves working for less than minimum wage in the freezing cold at the North Pole! Kids can be raised to have a lot of fun with characters they know are no more real than Bugs Bunny.
The point is, for our children, and more importantly, for adults, modern renditions of Santa Claus should not take the place of Jesus Christ. They don't need to.
• Is it significant that with Christmas and Easter, the vast majority of Western Christians have heavily endorsed mythology related to a Big Man and a Bunny?
Isn't it really true that Jesus came especially for those kids who get no presents?
Isn't it really true that the birth and resurrection of Jesus have direct bearing on the lives of those our children know and love, yet may lose in death?
8) What do people who don't believe in Jesus celebrate at Christmas? What do they think Christmas is all about?
This is a great question, and Lord knows what the answer is! As is often the case, it depends.
Fact is, Muslims say Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, performed many miracles, and was God's greatest prophet! Yet, in Islam, it is also said, Jesus was not the Son of God, nor was He crucified, dead, or risen again. Islam teaches Jesus was simply taken directly to Heaven. In addition, a number of miracles attributed to Jesus in the Quran appear to be borrowed from late Gnostic accounts, where the child Jesus turns clay pigeons into living creatures. These acts never occur in the Gospels and Christians never accepted them as accurate renditions of fact.
In addition, Islam teaches that Jesus was speaking from the cradle to protect His mother. This is silly, and, as indicated above, is due to the fact that Islam, and the Quran, are 7th Century AD religion, influenced by spurious accounts, not 1st Century expressions of eyewitness faith.
(Consider Quran 3 Surah 45-49 -- Al Imran)
The Angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.” She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?” He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.” And He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel.
A messenger to the Children of Israel: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I heal the blind and the leprous, and I revive the dead, by God’s leave. And I inform you concerning what you eat, and what you store in your homes. In that is a sign for you, if you are believers.”
So, in Islam, Jesus is really special, but He is not the Son of God. He is a prophet. Muslims do not celebrate the birth of their prophets, so, date-wise, the birth of Jesus is a non-event.
Not delving into every alternate view of Christmas, which would likely cover a whole gamut of approaches, perhaps it is best to consider the most important query...
9) What do we believe, and what are we showing Christmas is all about?
Apart from lights on bushes and trees (which are phenomenal), what are we demonstrating and displaying for others when it comes to the Birth of Our Savior?
Fact is, this is a question laid at the feet of all Christians, called and enabled to be Ambassadors of Jesus all year round. We're truly called to know and represent the only real gift that keeps on giving!
Beckoned to the Manger of Repentance and Forgiveness, if we seek Him, we'll see that because of Jesus, nothing in life or death will ever be able to separate us from the love of God!
Whether at home, or looking around the world, it's pretty obvious we need a Savior. Christmas is knowing that, in Jesus, a Savior has truly come.
At the very beginning, and in the end, that's what December 25th, and anything truly related to Jesus, are all about.