Sunday, December 12, 2010

December 12th - A Survey of Christmas History

Prayer Requests
Pastor Aaron Recovery and Preaching
Todd Love Recovery
Doomsday Outreach (December 17th!)
The Head family in the loss of Phyllis
Charles Wilder last few weeks
The Henley’s leaving
K.Sharpe's root canal
Friend of the Sharpes - Car Accident
Shelby's Aunt and Song
Kids Christmas tonight

Text – Various Christmas

I started to give you a history of Christmas, a look at dates and stuff and beloved I’ll tell you the truth, it bored me to death. It made me almost hate Christmas…there is so much drama and bickering and legalism surrounding this holiday that by the time I was finished researching I just wanted to throw my hands in the air and quit Christmas forever. But then I remembered that I really like Christmas, so I started over and looked at it rather at the lessons we can learn instead of just a survey of the history.

First of all, Christmas is not a celebration in the New Testament. In fact, the only festival we are told to celebrate is Passover. Why would we celebrate Passover? What’s another name for Passover? Easter. We celebrate because it was the day our Saviour died, the day our sin was atoned for; and we are able to celebrate it because Christ defeated death afterwards.

So because Christmas is not a celebration in the New Testament, does that mean we now can’t celebrate Christmas? No, quite the contrary,

Romans 14:5-6 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.

The New Testament tells us to know why we’re doing things, and the why is to honor Christ in our celebration. Therefore Christmas can be very sinful or very good, it’s going to be our goal today to make it very good. Now, I don’t know of any Christians who don’t celebrate Christmas, but if you ever run into one that doesn’t, the same rule applies to them. For example, Lutherans celebrate Ephiphany on January 6th, if they know why they are doing it and they’re doing it for the right reasons, then great, but it seems many do it just because they’ve always done it.

So, Christmas, first of all, check out the date, December 25th. We really don’t know when Jesus was born, and for two centuries the church didn’t write about it. Around the time of Jesus’ birth, it was thought very arrogant to celebrate your birthday and so most people didn’t do it, so it seems they didn’t even consider it until about ~AD200. It has seemed to be pretty universally accepted that Christ was conceived in March, so add 9 months to March and get December, so I really have no problem saying that December 25th is as good a guess as any. Our Romans verse says one day is as good as another, as long as we observe it in honor of the Lord.

Other dates range all over December and into January, and some are all over the calendar. Let’s stick to December 25th. Recently is has been popular to say that the church chose this date to combat pagan celebrations. The earliest date we have saying that the church did things like that is in the 600’s, and not for Christmas, but for “saint’s days” which really aren’t Christian anyways. It wasn’t until the 1200’s that anyone even mentioned that maybe the 25th was selected to do away with pagan holidays. I believe the 25th was chosen for veracity and not polemics.

It is only a recent thing that our calendars are uniform in different cultures, and on the Roman Julian Calendar, the Winter Solstice was on December 25th, where-as on the Gregorian Calendar we use today, the Solstice is when? December 21st or 22nd, this year it is as midnight on the 21st.

So Jesus was born according to this good guess, on the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year. Many Christian leaders in the third and fourth century saw this as theologically important, and saw a direct parallel to Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, that Christ, though crucified and killed, defeated death and lives forever more.

The first celebrations of Christ’s birth started in the early 200’s, December 25th was the generally agreed upon date by 274, and by the early 300’s it was the official date.

Let’s look at some people who celebrated Christ’s birth. First is the wise men who visited Christ soon after his birth,

Matthew 2:11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

These were likely Persians, Magi and Zoroastrians, remembering the prophesy of Daniel some 600 years earlier, seeking the God of Daniel. They give gifts to this King, any idea why they chose these three gifts? What could gold represent? Wealth? How about frankincense? It’s in the name, frank-incense; incense frequently represents prayer and worship. And Myrr? Literally this word can mean suffering, and it’s a spice and preservative that is used both in cooking and in burial. So these wise men did a very wise thing, they gave to the King Christ all of their possessions, worship, and sin and suffering; let us do likewise.

Gifts during Christmas have been a highly debated idea. During the dark-ages gift giving was forbidden, it wasn’t until the early 1800’s when it became really popular. Again, you must do everything you do with the right motives, if Christmas just means getting presents, then you’re doing it wrong and you need to repent.

When Christmas was becoming a popular idea, so was a great heresy by a dude named Arius. This guy was a punk, he claimed Jesus was just the Son of God, not actually God. In AD 323 there was a council called to discussed this, they met in Nicaea in Turkey. Arius preached his false jesus and claimed he was true, the bishop of Myra was so incensed that he rose, approached Arius, and walloped him. The bishops name was Nicolas, and later the Catholic Church officially sainted him, though every true Christian is a saint, and today we know him as Saint Nicolas. By all accounts he was a very loving man with a great desire to spread the gospel and give of himself and out of his abundance.

In German his name is SinterNicholaus, or shortened to SinterKlaus. Martin Luther didn’t like devoting a day to a man, so made efforts on Christmas to celebrate Kristkindle, the Christ Child, but through some weird language error Kriskringle became just another name for Santa Claus.

Even though Arius was officially labeled a heretic, his teaching continued to grow in small groups, and a man named Ambrose in the mid to late 300’s wrote a beautiful Christmas hymn to celebrate Christ as the God who was born as a man; largely to combat Arianism.

O come, Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth.
Let every age in wonder fall:
such birth befits the God of all.

Begotten of no human will
but of the Spirit, Thou art still
the Word of God in flesh arrayed,
the promised fruit to man displayed.

All praise, eternal Son, to Thee,
whose advent sets Thy people free,
whom, with the Father, we adore,
and Holy Ghost, for evermore.

In the 700’s a man named Boniface went to Germany as a missionary. Germany at this time was totally pagan, worshipping nature and the gods Thor and Odin. Boniface just so happened in his first visit to find the center of Thor worship, and an oak tree dedicated to him. Boniface announced to the town that he was going to cut their god down, that if Thor was God, he should stop him, but if Christ was God, the tree would fall. The whole town turned out to watch, waiting for Thor, the god of thunder, to strike Boniface down. Legend tells that something supernatural happened and the tree fell. Whether it was totally Boniface cutting it down, or God’s interceding as well, the tree fell, and Boniface preached Christ from the stump, and the first church in Germany was built out of that tree.

A few years later Boniface was in another part of Germany and a young boy ran to find him, crying, “Boniface, Boniface, they’re going to sacrifice my sister!” Boniface leaped to his feat, asking the boy to lead him to his sister. The boy led him into a specially prepared thicket of trees, an altar to Odin and nature, and the 15 year old girl on an altar with a priest hovering over her with a knife ready to cut her heart out in sacrifice. With no time for negotiation, Boniface shoved the priest into the nearest tree, knocking him out cold. He helped the girl off the altar, then climbed up himself in order to preach to the astonished crowd. He proclaimed, “Why are you sacrificing?! Do you not know that Christ was sacrificed once for all, the just for the unjust? These trees are not your brothers, they are not your sisters, they are not your mothers! They are trees! Cut them down and warm your homes with them, homes that at the center should be the Lord Jesus Christ.” And that they did, they cut down this forest cathedral and burned the logs; and from here we get the Yule Log tradition which has been celebrated on and off ever since.

The early Yule Tide festival seems to be the equivalent to a Christmas Celebration; some try to say that Yule predates Christianity in Germany, but there is no evidence of that. Have you ever watched a Yule Log on TV? In 1966 a television station in New York put it on during prime time for three hours. Until 1989 it was commonplace, then was canceled until 2001. In 2001 it was the most watched program on Christmas Day.

The term Christmaesse, or Christ Festival, wasn’t used until 1038, prior to that it had names like Nativity, Navidad, Advent, and Noel, all basically meaning birth or coming.

In the 1500’s the Christmas tree became more popular. The origins are obscured in mystery. Some say that Boniface rejected the oak and pointed to the evergreen tree as representing eternal life. There is no clear teaching on this, and it may be that it was best to cut the tree in remembrance that the tree is not god. If trees had souls, could we say that fir is murder?

There was definitely a similar thing going on 600 years before Christ, though this practice was definitely connected with some idea that that tree had some magical or mystical powers, something I don’t believe anyone thinks the Christmas tree has.

Jeremiah 10:2-5 Thus says the LORD: "Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good."

So look at this, the Christmas tree can be very bad, or if used rightly it can be very good. Again, your motive drives everything. If you remember that your tree is a creation of God, that it is useful to decorate and warm your home, that it has no power to bless you, that it doesn’t draw you closer to nature, then it can be used for good. People that don’t know why they have a tree I believe are in just as much danger as those who thought their tree was god.

By the mid-1700’s the Americans were rejecting Christmas as a British holiday. You’ll remember that on Christmas 1776 George Washington crossed the Delaware and captured a whole Hessian regiment in Trenton? We make a big deal that it was Christmas, but the Americans wouldn’t have been celebrating anyways if they hadn’t known that the Hessians, Germans, would be drunk and unprepared for an attack.

Interest in Christmas continued to wane and by the early and mid 1800’s it was feared that it might vanish altogether. Efforts were put in place to revive it. Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 to focus on the spirit of Christmas, utterly leaving Christ out of the holiday and overemphasizing family and presents. It was from this book that the phrase “Merry Christmas” became popular.

From 1832-48 the Christmas tree became more popular, overemphasized by Queen Victoria of England. By the 1850’s people were complaining that Christmas had become a shopping spree and that Christ was forgotten.

By 1860 Christmas was a legal holiday in most states, and in 1870 it was officially recognized as a federal holiday.

As Christmas became a secular event with presents, Jews feared their children being lured into Christianity merely for the presents, and in the late 1800’s Hanukah, a good and pure festival in the New Testament, was subjected to the same commercial fate as Christmas.

A song that I particularly like sums up why we should really be celebrating Christmas, it is by Sovereign Grace Music, and it’s called Son of God Came Down:

The Son of God came down and laid aside His crown
Born without great renown, this Sovereign One
All holiness and might, all glory shining bright
Have come to earth this night in Mary’s son

O come, let us adore
O Christ the Lord, our hope and Savior
Son of God yet made like us
O Christ the Lord, our King adored
Born a child, our Lord Jesus

Messiah born so small, asleep in cattle stall
Come to redeem our fall, nailed to a tree
This tiny, helpless child
Through death would reconcile
The holy God and vile, His grace so free
O come, let us adore