I grew up going in the Deep South going to traditional Baptist churches. For different reasons, as a child, I typically went to church only on Wednesdays, rarely attending on Sunday. For this reason, and probably several others, Christmas never really meant much more to me than it did for any other American child. It was a time for receiving gifts, being out of school, and spending time with family. My more extended family got together for big meals, and I got to play with my cousins. We received gifts and spent time with one another. Aside from this, I don't remember attaching much religious significance to Christmas until I became a follower of Christ in high school.
Though I don't intend to say this as a criticism of the SBC, it is true that Baptists tend not to be comfortable with ritual. In fact, many Americans (perhaps most), secular or not, find ritual to be uncomfortable because they associate it with the practices of a cult. In our individualistic culture, religious expression is a matter of individual expression, and many Christians, even, think of activities such as worship as something to participate in only if one feels like it. Modern worship caters to this mentality by encouraging people to "worship how you feel led." This individualistic emphasis, however, seems at odds with how Christians have worshiped together for hundreds of years. It seems to me that two things, the loss of ritual and too much emphasis on individuality in worship, have removed from the corporate consciousness of Christians the meaningfulness of some of our most ancient Christian holidays.
What are holidays for? There are several answers one could give to this question. In a secular sense, a holiday like Christmas is a time for enjoying fellowship with family and exchanging gifts with loved ones. Holidays can also be described sociologically as part of the culture of a people group, a time of year associated with certain cultural expectations and practices. Yet holidays have always had a religious quality as well. Ancient pagan groups celebrated feasts associated with particular gods and stages in the production of food. Ancient Israel, as we read in the Old Testament, had several holidays established by God for celebrating particular events, such as the Passover, or for seeking atonement, such as Yom Kippur.
Let me explore this point about ancient holidays a bit more. A couple of months ago, my Old Testament professor said something that provoked a lot of thought in me. He said that the way that we think about ritual and emotion today is not at all like how ancient peoples would have thought about these things. Today, we tend to spurn ritual as insincere. One's emotions are only valuable if they are genuine. Therefore, when we worship the Lord together on Sunday, we do so depending on "how we're led to worship." For ancient peoples, however, different times and seasons were appointed times for particular emotions. For example, in Ezra 3:8-13, we find the Jews, having returned from the exile in Babylon to a destroyed Jerusalem, finally beginning the process of restoring the temple in Jerusalem. This is a momentous occasion, one that could only be explained as the work of God for the sake of His people. One would expect that this would be a time of great celebration and joy, yet the text hints at a mixed response. It says, in verses 10-13 (NASB):
"Now when the builders had laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord according to the directions of King David of Israel. And they sang, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, saying, “For He is good, for His favor is upon Israel forever.” And all the people shouted with a great shout of joy when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, because the people were shouting with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away."
In light of God's miraculous provision and grace to a sinful people, why were some weeping? This would be like weeping at a wedding! Such a momentous sign of God's goodness should be a time for great celebration and joy. Likewise, in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, the Preacher contemplates this observation, that there are appointed times for things (NASB):
"There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every matter under heaven- A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance. A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing. A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace."
It occurred to me that if this is true, if there are appointed times for a proper response in us, then to think about worship of the Lord as individualistically as we do is actually probably unhelpful. Holidays, including Christian holidays, are times for contemplating certain truths and expressing certain emotions. They are also times for appointed worship of the Lord, as we see expressed in Ezra 3.
What, then, is Christmas all about? Of course, many will answer that it is about the birth of Jesus Christ. We celebrate His birth on Christmas with Christmas carols and Nativity scenes. Speakers everywhere can be heard sounding the words of "Mary, Did You Know?" and "Silent Night." Some of you may be thinking, "Obviously, the holiday is about the birth of Jesus. Why are you writing a whole blog about this?"
While I agree that, obviously, we celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas, I want to go further in answering this question. What profound truths of the Christian faith should we contemplate during this season? Remember, above I wrote that I think that the loss of ritual and too much emphasis on individuality in worship have removed from the corporate consciousness of Christians the meaningfulness of some of our most ancient Christian holidays, including Christmas. If this holiday is an appointed time for contemplating certain truths and expressing certain emotions to God in worship, an appointed time in which all Christians should join, then what's it an appointed time for? In reflecting on these things, I have three answers:
It is a time for contemplating the beautiful mystery of the incarnation.
It is a time for contemplating the love of God for us in sending His Son to become incarnate.
It is a time for contemplating how, in light of the incarnation, everything changes, both for creation and mankind.
First, Christmas is a time for contemplating the beautiful mystery of the incarnation. As I've pointed out in a previous post, Jesus, and only Jesus, is the God whose hand we can shake. Perhaps more appropriately, He was the God whose diapers Mary had to change. This spectacular miracle boggles the mind and has brought upon Christians for centuries the charge of foolishness and irrationality. Many today believe that the doctrine of the incarnation is ridiculous. And, indeed, in one sense, it is. Only a God with both the wildness of the One who separated the Red Sea and appeared in a burning bush and the awesome power of the One who created everything from nothing could pull off something so ludicrous. Yet, crazy as it is, it is the truth revealed in the testimony of Jesus' 34 years, expressed in His teachings and proven by His resurrection.
That God so desired to condescend to meet us, with our limitations, exceeds the boundaries of the intellect. Jesus, the One through whom and for whom everything was made (Colossians 1:16), had to be fed at Mary's breasts and weaned off of them. His diapers had to be changed; body cleaned and kept well; needs provided for; taught to walk and talk and do things for Himself. Christmas is itself a celebration of one of the most incredible doctrines of the Christian faith, yet we believe this doctrine because of the testimony of the apostles who saw Him, heard Him speak and perform signs, and saw Him die and risen from the dead.
Finally, in that post on the incarnation, I wrote that all bodies are revelatory. Bodies are the instruments of the soul to extend itself into the world. If Jesus was who He claimed to be, God in the body of a man, then He alone knows the Father intimately. Therefore, as God in the body of a man, His every move reveals to us who the Father is. We can only know the Father through His divine Son. Therefore, through the incarnation, we know God in the most tangible way.
Second, Christmas is a time for contemplating the love of God for us in sending His Son to become incarnate. Why did Jesus become incarnate? Was He curious about what it was like to be physical and wanted to try it out for a while? Of course not. In fact, Scripture is clear about why Jesus became incarnate. John 3:16-17 is clear (NASB):
"'For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.'"
According to this passage, the primary motivator for the incarnation is love for sinners. We have sinned, but God so loved us that He was willing to take on humanity, along with the suffering of the cross, to save us. As I'll reflect on with the third answer, Jesus' birth initiates this love-motivated plan on the behalf of His enemies, to instead rescue us from sin and death and place us with Him for eternity. Therefore, as an appointed time for worship, Christmas is a time for profound expectation and joy. The Light of the world has been born, guaranteeing the death and resurrection that will be our redemption and salvation. The profound mystery of the incarnation is our salvation.
Third, Christmas is a time for contemplating how, in light of the incarnation, everything changes, both for creation and mankind. In researching for this post, I stumbled across a verse of an ancient Orthodox hymn that I found very beautiful. It is part of a hymn called "Forefeast of the Nativity of Our Lord" and is to be sung, according to the Orthodox liturgy, beginning on December 20:
"Prepare, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all! Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave! Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Divine Fruit: If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning!"
Written into this beautiful piece is the expectation of what will eventually be true because of the work of Christ: the restoration of mankind and all creation in Christ. Densely packed into the words of this hymn are references to the original and perfect state of creation and an identification of Jesus Christ with that state. As a result of the birth of Christ, "Eden has been opened to all." The unborn Jesus is called "the tree of life." Her womb is called "paradise." Even before birth, Jesus represents the restoration of life, beauty, and connection with God and others, all of which we had before the fall of Adam.
Again, this appointed time is a time for joy: the joy of the hope of new creation in Christ. That is the hope expressed in the birth of Christ, the Light of the world who has come into the world to redeem sinners who were once His enemies. The image for the blog post is an icon of the Orthodox church. The controversy of using icons aside, the purpose of this image is to encourage the Christian to contemplate God. In this case, the image is a painting of the Nativity. Let me encourage you to see in images such as these each of the three things that I've highlighted in this post. Perhaps then, for me as well as you, the meaningfulness of Christmas will be more readily apparent and encourage more intimate worship of the Lord.
That's it for this post! I wanted to take a break from critical theory during the Christmas season to reflect on something much more in line with the original intent of this blog. In highlighting the beauty of the incarnation expressed in Christmas, Christians can more readily see the truth and goodness of the gospel and communicate it to others. I hope that you've been encouraged and edified as you've read this post and reflected on the meaningfulness of the Christmas season. The Advent of our Lord is an amazing announcement of what was to come 34 years later and of what is still being proclaimed by Christians all over the world today. I hope that you have a great and safe time with your family this week. Thanks for reading!