Christmas as a Christian Holy Day: And Why Secularists Have Successfully Attacked It
Posted on December 18, 2013
But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
What is the origin of the Christmas holiday (Holy Day)? Jesus’ birthday is obviously not observed in the Bible, so when did this observation start, and why?
The quirky church father Origen objected to celebrating our Lord’s birthday on the grounds that in the Bible, only pagans celebrated birthdays. In fact, the primitive church saw no need to celebrate our Lord’s Advent in that it was the resurrection, not the birth, of Christ that was central. (This is no less true today.) For the earliest Christians, Easter was every Sunday, not just an annual celebration, and it trumped the Advent in significance.
It was not until the theological dispute over the precise relationship between the humanity and divinity of Jesus came into full force during the fourth century that the church began to celebrate Epiphany, a precursor to Christmas, on January 6. The issue was never the exact day to celebrate, and the Christians never supposed that they could ascertain the actual day of the Lord’s birth. Rather, they were driven by theological considerations. If Jesus were truly human, and not only divine, the fact of his birth within the flow of human history was of great significance.
The early “Christmas” celebration by the church was momentous. The patristic church situated in what is today Israel would, at the Feast of Epiphany, assemble for what was by all accounts an elaborate celebration. The saints would march joyously through Bethlehem on the night of January 5-6 and at dawn sing hymns in honor of Jesus. They would soon approach Jerusalem and the Church of the Resurrection, whose interior was festooned with thousands of candles.
From the very beginning, light — lots of light — was associated with this Holy Day of Advent. Jesus was described in the Gospel of John as the Light of the World, and this Light came to earth to dispel the darkness and depravity of humanity.
But how did the date get moved from January 6 to December 25? During the reign of Constantine, December 25 was the date of the worship of the sun, and this first (quasi-) Christian emperor deliberately united this worship with what we today term Christmas. In addition, in the primitive church, Epiphany was linked to baptism, but over time, this link was discovered to harbor heretical implications. The heresy of “adoptionism” held that Jesus the man did not become God until He was “adopted” by the Father with the descent of the Holy Spirit at His baptism. As the church clarified its opposition to this heresy, it needed to separate the celebration of Advent from that of baptism. But why, specifically, choose December 25?
This was the date in Roman Mithraism of the winter solstice: huge bonfires were lit to assist the sun in its climb above the horizon. The early church countered this pagan festival with Christmas, the festival of the True Light, Jesus Christ. Constantine was a syncretist, and his union of Christmas with the winder solstice is a leading example of that syncretistic impulse. Meanwhile, the Christians, while retaining practices associated with the pagan festival, did not see Christmas as a pagan festival but instead conceived of it as a competing Holy Day.
Christian Advent and Redemptive History
Christ’s Advent, today celebrated at Christmas, is not the summit of the Christian Faith. Rather, it is a vital step in toward that summit, which in reality is the atoning death and victorious resurrection of Jesus. For Paul in particular, the great, divinely inspired theologian of the work of Jesus Christ, the monumental turning point of history is not the Christian incarnation but our Lord’s death and resurrection. Jesus was born to die — and rise again (1 Tim. 1:15). As we noted in the previous chapter, Jesus’ incarnation would have meant nothing had He never died and risen from the dead in great victory.
Sectors of the church (like the East) that situate the incarnation as central tend to see man’s problem not so much as the guilt of sin but as the corruption of sin. The Fall incurred no guilt due to sin against the law of God (as is affirmed in the West) but rather the diminution of God’s life within man — man lost some of his humanity in the Garden of Eden and thereby suffered corruption. Salvation is the reversal of corruption and the reinvigoration of the divine life in man. Man’s problem is not so much that he is guilty but that he is corrupt(ed). In the incarnation, God provides a way for man to regain his lost status of sharing in the divine life.
This view of the incarnation misses almost entirely the meaning of the Cross. It is not clear in this view, in fact, why the Cross is necessary at all. It is sometimes asserted that the Cross beat down the “frightful cosmic reality of [man’s] death,” but it is not evident why Christ’s death is necessary to accomplish this. Could He not have vanquished the power of death by His life, without having to die? And if not, why not?
However, if Jesus’ death carried the penalty of man’s sin, we can well understand why He had to die. His death was substitutionary. He suffered in man’s place, so that man could avoid that suffering and awful death and eternal separation from God (1 Pet. 3:18).
This is why we must always see the incarnation as part of redemptive history; it is redemptive-historical. The great turning point of history is Messiah’s death and resurrection, by which in the former he suffered the wrath of the Father in dying for man’s sins, and in the latter overcame the stranglehold of sin by the relentless power of the Holy Spirit. Sinners can be saved only because Jesus died and rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:12-19).
Why the Secularists Have Been Successful
Today’s secular attacks on the Christmas season (the ACLU’s legal challenges to manger scenes on “public” property, and so on) would have been less successful had the church of the last century been more vigilant in linking Jesus’ death and resurrection with His incarnation. The problem here is not chiefly the myth and commercialization into which the season has fallen: Santa Claus and debt spending. No, the root problem is that for decades now, Christmas for the church has been all about the Babe Jesus in His incarnational humiliation and peace on earth and the human charity that such tender scenes engender. Not for a moment should we diminish those scenes, but if we propagate them apart from their redemptive-historical context, we present to the church — and the world — an emasculated, dilute Christian Faith, and it’s hard to detect any deep, weighty rationale for the incarnation. We overcome this soft-core Christmas celebration if we stress that the Faith — and the incarnation — is at its very root redemptive-historical.
The Faith is never truly preached apart from the scandal (offense) of the Cross (Gal. 5:11). In philosophically sophisticated sectors of the ancient world, the idea that God could come to earth as a human was silly (these ancients were deeply dualistic); but to our world, what is scandalous is that man is guilty before God because of his sin, not that God could become man. So, to moderns, the Babe in the manger is a reminder that God loves all of us as a babe loves his parents, and the quiet pastoral scenes as well as the musical, angelic scenes surrounding today’s celebration reinforce a God of peace and hope and reconciliation — not much else.
He is indeed a God of peace and hope and reconciliation, but these blessings are possible for man only because of the death of Jesus to pay for man’s sin and His resurrection to triumph over them definitively (Rom. 5:10). The incarnation as such does not save. It saves in that it subordinated the Son of God to humanity, a subordination apart from which He could never die and rise again in redeeming man from sin.
And as long as the church severs the celebration of Christmas from the death and resurrection of Jesus in an effort to avoid offense at this tender season, it will be a fit target for secularists, for when emptied of its redemptive-historical character, it is not clear why we should celebrate Christmas at all. Most Christians will not fight urgently for public displays of Christmas when it is removed from the core of their salvation secured by Jesus on the Cross and from the empty tomb.
This Christmas season let us boldly celebrate Jesus, the Son of God, Who came into the world to save sinners by His atoning death and victorious resurrection.
Let’s refuse to tone down the scandal. Let’s refuse to surrender Christmas to those who would strip away its redemptive-historical character.
In arriving at these conclusions, I’ve greatly benefitted over the years by the works of Oscar Cullmann, Richard Gaffin, Herman Ridderbos, and Geerhardus Vos.