It’s Christmas time — the season of “peace on earth/Good will toward men!”, y’know — so of course, not only are the unflagging secularists setting their impious sights on shuttering public displays of “Christ”-mas cheer; but there is a whole other group of “Bah-Humbuggers!” on the other side of the cultural equation: devout Christians who denounce observance of the late-December holiday. (They usually turn up, albeit a bit less vocally, in the springtime snorting at “Easter” celebrations, as well.)
The latter group’s beef with these holidays usually, broadly, turns on a number of objections. There are accusations of “pagan” influences ((the winter solstice, ancient Roman Sun worship) contaminating various traditions (Christmas trees, mistletoe, Easter eggs and bunnies). Many take offense at the levels of materialism and commercialism which have polluted the commemorations (too many presents, too much shopping-mania, overemphasis on candy, etc.). Furthermore, in the specific case of Christmas, critics charge dissonance between the selection of December 25 for the big day versus another, more likely birth date for the Baby Jesus.
Suggestion: how about both sides of this intra-church debate — that is, those within the Christian community who are at loggerheads over “Christmas”– apply a bit of somewhat obscure, but terrifically practical, biblical reasoning that seems to be pretty much lost nowadays in the holly-and-ivy shuffle: ”So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths.” (Col 2:16)
In that admonition, the Apostle Paul supplies not only a closely-tailored command regarding distinctly Jewish special days but, beyond that, a ruling principle which might free a bunch of us from this annual fret-fest. If someone, genuinely before God, can worship Jesus and have his relationship with Him fortified through acknowledgement of certain festivals or cherished observances — more power to him. That doesn’t mean the other guy has to indulge the same practices; and he shouldn’t be spurned by the celebrators if he chooses not to follow their lead.
Don’t, for a moment, think the epistle writer would be unable to identify with this controversy. Fact is, he faced his own contemporaneous conflicts over issues like this: Should followers of Jesus honor the Jewish Sabbath, another day, or no day in particular? If an idol worshiper offers a slab of beef to his god, can a disciple of Christ use it for hamburger? What if one of those aforementioned idolaters extends a dinner invitation to a Christian — can he accept it?
The New Testament sections which address these questions — mainly Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10 — typically are skated over by Bible readers as being inscrutable and irrelevant. But for the first century Christian they were anything but that — this was penetrating stuff dealing with what, for them, were pressing dilemmas.
Paul, as a highly influential church leader, dealt with these concerns, his era’s burning, religio-cultural dust-ups, by cautioning: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom 14:4).
Yes, the professing Christian who bows down in reverence to the bedecked fir tree in his living room? Who invokes evergreen garlands for good luck? He needs a healthy rebuke, for sure — I’ll even volunteer to deliver it!. (By the way, I have yet to find anyone guilty of any of that)). Stipulating that, however …
Frankly, for my part, delightfully partaking of Christmas season conventions, (and to a lesser degree, tipping my hat to “Easter Sunday”), helps me focus on key parts of the Savior’s earthly mission. No, my spiritual walk won’t fizzle in the absence of these societal “holy days”; they do, nonetheless, serve me as yearly, calendrical tools that sweeten my relationship with my Savior.
Some fellow believers doesn’t share my enthusiasms? No sweat; I have no intention of crowbarring my preferences into anyone’s customs, religious or otherwise.
And, for the record, even in our modern, libertine, earthly-minded society, both holidays open doors for the church to bear witness to the Gospel’s historic and essential facts (Jesus’ birth, ie, His incarnation; and his death/resurrection). In starkly practical ways, they carry huge potential for cultivating a favorable spiritual atmosphere, stirring spiritual interest in unbelievers. I’d like to think a church dedicated to reaching people’s hearts could find imaginative and appropriate strategies for leveraging “Christian” holidays for the proclamation of the Christian message.
If aspects of these celebrations, however, offend other believers — who am I to dismiss them? To scorn them? My responsibility is to be sensitive to their convictions, while enjoying the liberty of enjoying my own.
“It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” (Rom 14:21, 22).
“Why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience?” (1 Cor 10:29)
Good grief — the time and emotional energy the people of God needlessly expend on fighting one another over distractions like these.
Note: For those who’ve heard their whole life we celebrate Christmas on December 25 because of a pagan, Roman tradition, I highly recommend Mark P. Shea’s study on this matter; he argues, persuasively, in my opinion, that this popular thesis has it exactly wrong.
While I’m at it, this is also thought provoking: Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday?
Image: Re-enactors Peter Knight and Stefan Langheinrich, descendants of Great War veterans, shake hands at the 2008 unveiling of a memorial to the 1914 Christmas Truce; 11 November 2008
Author: Alan Cleaver;e Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license