Friday, December 23, 2005

A Christmas without Christ

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told
(Luke 2:1-20).

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no decorations. No Christmas tree. No lights strung on the porch. No garland or tinsel. No Yule logs or mistletoe. No Santas or reindeer.

What would we lose by having a Christmas without these decorations? Christmas trees did not come into use until the year 1510. Christmas lights weren’t available until 1920. Yule logs and mistletoe were first used by Norsemen and druids in their religious ceremonies before they found their way into Christmas. Santa, as he is known today, got his first publicity from Washington Irving in 1809, and Montgomery Ward introduced Rudolph to the world in 1939. Although the decorations are pretty, they have not always been part of the Christmas experience.

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no holiday treats. No cookies. No eggnog. No candy canes.

What would we lose by having a Christmas without Christmas treats? Well, we might lose a few pounds! But once again, Christmas treats are not as old a tradition as you might think. Candy canes were first given out by a choirmaster in 1670 to keep the children quiet during long church services. The recipe for eggnog was finalized just 150 years ago. The earliest Christmas cookies were ginger, spritz, and krumkake, all of which first became popular in the 1500s--and cookie-cutter shapes did not become common until the 1930s. Sweets are enjoyable, but they haven’t always been a part of Christmas.

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no pre-recorded music. No songs on the radio. No music in the stores. No Christmas specials on TV. No animated plastic snowmen mangling carols with a hissing synthetic voice.

What would we lose by having a Christmas without pre-recorded music? Music could not be recorded and reproduced until the 1870s. Prior to that, making music was a live event. Christmas music could only be heard in church, from groups of wandering carolers, or when families gathered around pianos in their homes. Music has always been a part of Christmas, beginning with the angels singing Good News to the shepherds. However, making music was always a group event.

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no shopping. No Christmas cards. No Christmas presents. No Christmas dinner.

What would we lose by having a Christmas with no shopping? Well for one thing, we would lose a huge credit card statement come January. But once again, this is a tradition of recent times. The large Christmas dinner dates from the Middle Ages. Christmas cards weren’t invented until 1840. The interest in giving elaborate gifts on Christmas started with a Macy’s holiday promotion in 1867, and modern holiday shopping habits developed during World War II when retailers urged customers to ‘buy early’ so that gifts mailed to troops serving overseas would arrive in time for Christmas.

Some people have the mistaken idea that the tradition of gift giving started with the Wise Men bringing gifts to Christ. Not so! When a person comes to meet royalty, it is customary to bring a gift. The Wise Men came seeking ‘The King of the Jews’; their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were intended to show respect to the newborn King. Modern gift giving is completely different; instead of giving our gifts to the King, we give our gifts to each other. Our pattern of gift giving is not based on the example of the Wise Men.

No decorations. No treats. No pre-recorded music. No shopping. Strip these all away and Christmas would look different—in fact, it would look like Christmas as it was first observed in the fourth century. In those days, the Roman Empire was made up of both Christians and non-Christians in large numbers. Many non-Christian religions celebrated the end of one year and the beginning of the next on the date of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. To encourage unity among the citizens, Emperor Constantine promoted December 25th as the date for a holiday that could be holy both to Christians and to the followers of other religions at the same time. From the beginning, Christmas has shared December 25th with the false religions of the world.

Which brings us to today. Now I’d like you to imagine a Christmas without Christ. No church services. No nativity scenes. No Christmas carols. There are trees and lights and Santa. There are candy canes and cookies and oyster stew. There are songs like ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ and ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.’ There are stacks of cards and piles of presents and a table groaning under the weight of food. But there is no Jesus.

This describes many peoples’ Christmas. This is the kind of holiday our world is moving towards with increasing speed. This year a record number of retailers have banished the words ‘Merry Christmas’ from their promotions for fear of offending any potential customers; now it’s ‘Happy Holidays.’ Christmas trees are being replaced with ‘holiday trees’. There have been efforts to combine Christmas with Hanukkah, creating a new holiday called "Chrismukkah," and African-Americans have offered the alternative of Kwanzaa since 1966. More and more, Christ is being edged out of Christmas.

What do we lose by taking Christ out of Christmas? First of all, we lose the chance to meet God. Hebrews 1:3 tells us: The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being. To see Jesus is to see His Father—in the 14th chapter of John, Jesus says: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. Indeed, the only way to see God is through His Son; our Lord states: No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well (John 14:6-7). When we take Christ out of Christmas, we lose the ability to see our Creator.

This is a dangerous loss. If we cannot see God, we cannot know how to please Him. Have you ever drawn names for a gift exchange and been absolutely stumped on what to buy for the name you got? When a person is a stranger to you, it is impossible to know what kind of gift will please them. So it is with God. It is Jesus who reveals the Father to us; it is Jesus who tells us what God enjoys, what His priorities are, and what provokes His anger. Without Jesus, it is impossible for us to please God. And to anger God has terrible consequences, as death will only be the introduction to suffering.

When we take Christ out of Christmas, we lose the offer of forgiveness. Jesus came among us to do more than just teach us about God; He dressed Himself in the body of a human being so that He could suffer and die. The sinless Son of God assumed responsibility for all our sinfulness; Paul writes: God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). The eternal Son of God became human so that He could shed His blood for us and bring us freedom from a lifetime of mistakes; Ephesians 1:7 states "[God] is so rich in kindness that he purchased our freedom through the blood of his Son, and our sins are forgiven." Without forgiveness, life is nothing but an ever-increasing heap of guilt over foolish words, broken promises and missed opportunities that we drag along with us like a mortal version of Marley’s ghost. Without forgiveness, life can only grow more depressing with each passing year. And without forgiveness, we cannot find welcome in heaven when we eventually die.

When we take Christ out of Christmas, we lose the promise of everlasting life in paradise. Our Lord came to earth to die so that we might escape the grave; just before He raised Lazarus from the dead, our Master said: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25). Jesus promises to rescue His followers from the grave, and once raised by Him, they will never die again. Not only that, but the life that awaits His followers is eternity in paradise; Jesus said "Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me" (John 12:26). Every painful memory will be pushed aside by a never-ending life of peace and happiness, a bliss that we can scarcely imagine. Without the promise of paradise, life becomes little more than a mad scramble to stay away from the grave at any cost, while filling every waking moment with pleasures meant to distract from the specter of death.

Imagine a Christmas without Christ: a constant stream of lights and wrapping paper and food and canned music, all of it trying to conceal our problems. But Santa can’t tell us what’s right and wrong as we wrestle with difficult decisions. An expensive present cannot undo the hurt that we’ve inflicted on a loved one. The words of Blue Christmas’ cannot give us hope as the flipping of the calendar brings us another year closer to our last holiday season here on earth. Without Christ, Christmas cannot offer any of the things that we really need--a moral compass, forgiveness, and hope in the face of approaching death.

This is why we need Christ in Christmas. Only He can guide us through the complexity of life and help us make decisions that are good and constructive and God-pleasing. Only He can give us release from our guilt and lift us up when we have made a mess of things. Only He can take the black hole of despair that is our grave and make it a doorway to eternal life, eternal happiness, and eternal love. Only Christ can satisfy our deepest, most important needs.

Keep Christ in your Christmas. Everything else is shiny and fun, but ultimately little more than a distraction. Welcome Christ—welcome Him into your home and into your heart. May you have a most blessed Christmas.

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