Incarnation Minus Paganism: A Christmas What-If
- Monday, December 05, 2011
LAYER SIX – December 25
Your December calendar is about to become a lot less stressful. Why? Because this whole winter festival thing needs to go.
Early in the history of Christmas celebrations, bishops complained about excessive eating and drinking, often associated with the Roman Saturnalia festival. The seven-day festival (December 17-23) included supposed freedoms for slaves and lots of feasting and other raucous activities. The Roman Saturnalia also included candles on tree branches, celebrating the sun’s return to earth.
LAYER SEVEN – Birthday Celebrations
According to the Roman calendar, December 25 was the winter solstice. Since the sun appeared to grow in power every day after the solstice, ancients labeled the winter solstice as the “birthday” of the sun. Interestingly, the Bible uses the sun imagery in reference to Christ (see Matthew 17:2; Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Mark 16:2 Revelation 1:16). With a growing appreciation for parallels between culture and text, combining reverential beliefs about the sun with reverential beliefs about The Son may have been inevitable.
Only two birthday celebrations are mentioned in the Bible, both pagan: Pharaoh and Herod. As early as ca. 200, Origen warned believers about mixing pagan and Christian traditions, celebrating Christ's birth as if Christ were a Pharoah. The actual celebration of Christmas did not officially begin until at least the third century. By then, Christianity became “Romanized,” and the Romans celebrated birthdays. So gradually, celebrating birthdays became "okay" for Christians.
Let’s remove this layer, and say good-bye to that “Happy Birthday, Jesus” song.
LAYER EIGHT – Holiday Meals
If you are not a fan of extended family dinners, I have some good news for you. There is a big difference between the Nativity (the actual birth of Christ) and the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas). Especially considering all that Saturnalia stuff, we better get rid of the big Christmas dinner.
WHAT IS LEFT?
When we peel away all the layers of an onion, we suddenly appear to have nothing left. And at first, that is how our Christmas supposal may seem. If we strip away all the extra-Biblical layers, December 25 becomes a dark midwinter day. We leave the lights and the levity to the pagans.
So how can we celebrate Christ’s birth? Francis Schaeffer noted the gospel responses to seeing the Christ child included proclamation from the shepherds (Luke 2:17), worship from the Magi (Matthew 2:11), and joy assured (Luke 2:10). So when we strip away all the other stuff that has attached itself to the Nativity, we still have something: proclamation, worship, and joy.
However, I suggest we don’t do the Nativity any favors by stripping the Incarnation holiday bare. We need sacred holidays on our calendar. Why? Because “to practice a sacred calendar is to save a date for the presence of God.”
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