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The Christadelphian | December 2012

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Another year done
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Lamentations” | Trevor A. Pritchard
  • An impotent man | Alan Siviter
  • “This man, if he were a prophet” | Paul Wasson
  • A basket of summer fruit | Allan Harvey
  • Long life: a reflection | Barry Lambsdown
  • “Sing forth the honour of His Name” Ten years of worship from the 2002 hymn book | John Botten
  • The question of Christmas | Rod Hale
  • Questions Jesus asks “What think ye of Christ?” | Paul Aston
  • The character of God 10 – In the Lord Jesus | Mark Buckler
  • Shebna the scribe | John V. Collyer
  • Signs of the times “They shall dwell safely …” | Philip White
  • Israel and their land Gaza flashpoint
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

The question of Christmas

NOW is the time of year we are being told how many shopping days there are left until Christmas. The shops are again full of decorations, gift suggestions and piped Christmas music. Our colleagues and neighbours are making their annual plans for over-indulgence. And churches are once more beginning arrangements for carol services to mark the birth of Christ, because for most Christians Christmas is a highlight, if not the highlight, of the religious calendar.

Father Christmas

Santa Claus – a mythical gift bringer, dressed in red, whose origins have diverse sources. The name Santa Claus can be traced back to the Dutch Sinterklaas, which means simply Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, in modern day Turkey, during the fourth century. Among other attributes, he was noted for the care of children, generosity, and the giving of gifts. Saint Nicholas traditionally appeared in bishop’s attire, accompanied by helpers, inquiring about the behaviour of children during the past year before deciding whether they deserved a gift or not. By the thirteenth century, Saint Nicholas was well known in the Netherlands, and the practice of gift-giving in his name spread to other parts of central and southern Europe. At the Reformation in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, corrupted in English to Kris Kringle, and the date of giving gifts changed from December 6 to Christmas Eve.

In the brotherhood there is a wide variety of views about the festival. On the one hand, there are those who avoid it as far as possible by not giving presents or sending cards, for example. Some refuse even to use the word because of its meaning. [1] At the other extreme there seems to be a gradual move by ecclesias towards embracing it. Some have Christmas trees in their halls; more common are carol services, which sometimes replace Sunday public addresses. [2] Then there are those who see Christmas merely as a chance for families to get together. They treat the seasonal traditions of giving, sending and eating purely as enjoyable customs and not as religious celebrations.

This article deals primarily with the question of whether we should, as individuals or ecclesias, remember Christ’s birth on December 25. It deals mainly with the religious aspects of Christmas, rather than with the keeping of the social traditions. For some of the more academic aspects of the subject readers are referred to the notes.

Lack of Bible attention

It may be surprising to us, but in His wisdom God has given us little information about Christ’s birth and His word places little emphasis on it. It is bypassed completely by Mark and John. Luke gives us the fullest account. Matthew mentions it in passing while dealing with the events before and after it. This is very different from other events in Christ’s life which are described in detail in all four Gospels, such as the feeding of the five thousand. It is insignificant compared with the events leading up to and relating to Christ’s death and resurrection which occupy large parts of each Gospel.

“No such commandment”

Nowhere in the scriptures do we find commands to mark Christ’s birth, nor do we read of such celebrations being kept. Indeed, only two birthday celebrations are mentioned in the scriptures at all – those of Pharaoh and Herod. This is in complete contrast to remembering the death of Christ, which God’s word commands us to do and which records the early believers as doing.

Not kept by the early Church

We know that the death of Christ was celebrated from the beginning and that this evolved into the three days of Easter. But there is no mention of celebrating Christ’s birth in the many post-Apostolic writings which have survived. In AD 245 the theologian Origen described the Roman practice of celebrating birthdays as pagan, which strongly suggests that Christ’s birthday was not being marked at that time.

Not until the early fourth century is there any record of it being celebrated. This is found in the Chronography of AD 354. [3] This includes a list of martyrs, the dates of whose deaths were being commemorated. But it starts with “Eighth day before the kalends of January [i.e., December 25], Birth of Christ in Bethlehem Judea”. We assume from this that by then Christ’s birth was being celebrated on December 25. If so, this is probably the first reference to it.

When was Christ born?

This idea that Christmas was probably not celebrated until the fourth century seems to coincide with the fact that for centuries there was considerable debate about the actual date of Christ’s birth. It is difficult to celebrate someone’s birthday without knowing when they were born!

The first contribution in early church writings to this discussion is found in a work by Clement of Alexandria in about AD 200. He mentioned several possibilities: March, April, and May – but not December.

By the time of the fourth century, however, we find two dates being recognised. In AD 350 Pope Julius I declared December 25 the official date for the Western Church. In the East January 6 was celebrated, but in time the former became the favoured date for most Christians.

Why December 25?

The most popular theories allege that the Church chose this date to help achieve the acceptance of its teachings in the pagan world. [4] It matched the birth of Christ with either the winter solstice, established in 46 BC by Julius Caesar on December 25, or Saturnalia, a festival to mark the winter solstice that ran for seven days from December 17 and included the giving of presents. [5]

Another version of the pagan origin of Christmas directs us to the newer Roman holiday of Dies Natalis Solus Invicti (The Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun). This was established in AD 274 by the pagan Roman Emperor Aurelian. It celebrated the lengthening of the sun’s rays and the victory of light over darkness at the winter solstice. [6] The Church connected this with Christ being described as the “Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:2). [7]

A different theory is that the date of Christ’s birth was eventually decided on the basis of a traditional belief that he was conceived and crucified on the same date. As this was considered to be March 25, it led to the conclusion he was born on December 25. [8]

But whereas each of the four Gospels provides detailed information about the date of Jesus’ death, neither the date nor the time of year of Christ’s birth are stated. Although this is not the point of this article, there is a strong case for it having taken place in our September, not December (see, for example, The Christadelphian, November 2011, page 408).

The Son of God, not God the Son

Having established that Christmas is a Church institution, not a God-given one, there is another serious aspect worth considering. Whose birth do the churches celebrate? Not the actual birth, the coming into existence, of the Son of God but the arrival from heaven of God the Son in human form. “Celebrating the coming of God into the world in the form of man to atone for the sins of humanity is considered by Christians to be the primary meaning of Christmas”. This is not God-manifestation as we understand it, but the false doctrine of the Incarnation. [9]

This brings to mind the warning of the Apostle John:

“Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist …” (1 John 4:3)

It is probably not a coincidence that the date of Christ’s birth and a festival to mark it were being established in the same century as the doctrine of the Trinity was being finalised after years of debate.

“Lying lips are abomination to the LORD”

Many Christmas hymns blasphemously stress the doctrine of the Trinity and in particular the aspect of the Incarnation. [10] But there are many other inaccuracies that they, along with children’s Nativity plays, also perpetuate, contradicting what we know from the scriptures about Christ’s birth. For example, they often reinforce popular myths about the birth of Christ such as the idea that it was kings who visited Christ (possibly because of Psalm 72:11), that there were three of them (possibly because there were three gifts) and that this visit coincided with that of the shepherds.

“Train up a child in the way he should go”

It is often said that Christmas is all about children, as well as about one child in particular. Christmas services and plays and other activities that mark Christ’s birth are often designed to involve children. Ironically, it is our children that need protecting from the blasphemy and misinformation that is involved in the popular keeping of Christ’s alleged birthday.

“SUCH a lowly beginning to the life of Christ upon earth is an astounding fact … A lowlier birth it would be impossible to imagine … What are we to think about it? It is surely easy to read the lesson. Christ, the highest, began the humblest. ‘God hath chosen the weak things of this world to confound the mighty’.” ROBERT ROBERTS, Nazareth Revisited, page 55.

Topical presentations

Ecclesias may not celebrate Christmas but may hold public presentations with topical titles on the grounds that they might attract visitors. While there is some point in this, we should bear in mind that people who only see the titles advertised will probably assume that we keep Christmas like the churches do. In any case, care should be taken with titles. “The true meaning of Christmas”, for instance, is a contradiction, because there is no meaning in Christmas at all.

“Things offered unto idols”

There are non-religious aspects of Christmas that even some church-goers find distasteful, such as the greed and commercialisation that accompany it. Perhaps we should set an example in this ourselves. Some brothers and sisters dislike it on the grounds that many Christmas customs, such as Christmas trees, can be traced to pagan roots, even as far back as Babylonian idolatry (see Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons, 1858). Some parents disapprove of telling their children that their presents are brought down the chimney by Santa Claus rather than provided by friends and family, because it is not true. Others regard these things as harmless or as another case of “things offered unto idols” (1 Corinthians 8). In other words, there is no harm in them as long as “we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one” (verse 4), and as long as this is not a “stumbling block” to those in whose minds “conscience of the idol” is very real (verse 7).

“Be not conformed to this world”

The keeping of non-religious Christmas customs should be a matter of conscience: “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). But as for celebrating Christ’s birth:

  • God does not want us to mark the birth of His Son once a year.
  • If He had wanted this, He would have given us the date and told us how to do it.
  • By doing so, we are copying a man-made festival from a false Church (the coming of which the apostles warned about), instigated for the wrong reason and at the wrong time.

If, in spite of the above, we still feel justified in introducing celebrations to mark the birth of Christ, perhaps we should ask ourselves why. Is it to try to make ourselves acceptable to an unsympathetic world? If so, we are in danger of making one of the oldest mistakes of all: “When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations” (Deuteronomy 18:9). We might think it is wiser to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22) and not risk giving the impression to others that we are no different from the churches around, that we subscribe to mistaken traditional ideas about Christ’s birth and possibly that we are Trinitarians like them.

If we abstain from celebrating Christ’s birth, we can witness to our children and to anyone who asks “a reason of the hope that is in (us)”, that we are trying at all times to follow the commands of the Father and the Son contained in the scriptures.

Rod hale

[1] The word “Christmas” comes from the expression “Christ’s Mass”. “Xmas”, which is sometimes used as an acceptable alternative, uses the initial letter chi (Χ) of the Greek word for Christ, ΧριστÏŒς.

[2] This seems to be accompanied by the provision in some ecclesial programmes of Good Friday or Easter Monday services and harvest festivals, which are also church services.

[3] The Chronography is sometimes known as the Philocalian Calendar. The name of Furius Dionysius Filocalus, the leading scribe or calligrapher of the time, appears on the dedication page. In fact, the Calendar that bears his name is only part of the Chronography.

[4] For a summary of the theories visit www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp (which favours the chronology theory).

[5] Newton, Isaac. Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733). Ironically, there is much debate about whether Newton was born on December 25 or not!

[6] In the Chronography of AD 354 already referred to, December 25 is elsewhere listed as the “Birthday of the Unconquered”, the oldest literary reference to the pagan feast of Solo Invictus.

[7] Cyprian (Bishop of Carthage, AD 249-258) wrote “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born … Christ should be born”. Later John Chrysostom (? AD 347-407) also commented on the connection: “They call it the Birthday of the Unconquered. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord …?”

[8] In about AD 200 Tertullian reported the calculation that the date of Christ’s death was March 25. In AD 221 Sextus Julius Africanus suggested that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox – March 25. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) was also familiar with this association. In “On the Trinity” he wrote: “For he is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered … But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”

[9] “The Incarnation in traditional Christianity is the belief that Jesus Christ the second person of the Trinity, also known as God the Son or the Logos (Word), “became flesh” by being conceived in the womb of a woman, the Virgin Mary … and became both man and God … This is central to the traditional faith held by most Christians”.

[10] e.g., Hark the herald angels sing: ”Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity / Pleased as man with man to dwell / Jesus, our Emmanuel”.

 

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