Wednesday, December 19

Getting to the heart of the matter......

This is only my second Christmas, standing in front of the congregation with the heavy responsibility to proclaim the 'reason for the season', and make it fresh and new. Most of my congregation has memories of centuries of celebrations and have heard the story of the baby Jesus' birth over and over again that they can repeat it in their sleep literally word for word.

No pressure, though.

So I thought, with the various attacks coming against Christianity this season with "Happy Holidays" being expressed in the stores, "Holiday Trees" adorning the isles, and the Salvation Army's traditional bell ringing being rejected by retailers outside store fronts, that I would dig beyond the typical Christmas story and look at why we celebrate the way we do…….

First, we have to look at the source of the season……

"There's nothing the Jesus of the Gospels either said or did that cannot be shown to have originated thousands of years before, in Egyptian Mystery and other sacred liturgies." Tom Harpur states in his book, The Pagan Christ. Nestled in this dubious beginnings brought up in the past arguing about the celebration of Christ's birth, we find the very story of Christmas, the virgin birth, allegedly of Mithras, an infant god born of a virgin in a cave on December 25th. Even without the supposed match between Christ and Mithras; traveling teacher, 12 followers, buried in a cave and rose after three days, we find alot of questions that were raised regarding the validity of Christmas. Mithras was known by many names, defined by the cultures this god played a part in; Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, and Adonis to name a few.

Attis, the Asia Minor rendition of Mithras, is an older myth than the Christian faith, but it seems that the first resurrection addition to his story is well beyond 160 A.D. Adonis' story is found around 100 years after Christianity, and Osiris doesn't have a resurrection aspect to his story at all, He is given status in the nether world only. And Mithraism, the religion that followed the story under the Mithras figure, can only be dated to the 2nd century, by an inscription of Mithraic styling found upon a statue of a prefect under Emperor Trajan.

So, we've briefly shown the rumor of copying prior religions is false and if you look at the common theories out the today, it is not the 'mythical borrowing' of the story of Christ that is under dispute anymore , but the origins of the celebration of Christmas itself.

If you can't attack the foundation, set fire to the structure.........

Easter was the 'holiday' that was prevalent in the early church. After all, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the separation from any of the religious theories of the time. He did rise again, and ascend to Heaven… is this that brought converts daily.

The celebration of Christmas originally was celebrated on January 6th, and still is by the Eastern Orthodox Church, where it is called the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. It was this date, thirteen days after the 25th of December that it was believed the three Kings discovered Christ in the manger.

For the Roman Orthodox church, commonly referred to today as the Roman Catholic Church, the date of December 25th was added in 350 A.D. by the Bishop of Rome, Pope Julius I, to observe the declaration made in 137 A.D. to have a solemn feast to celebrate Christ's birth. Some traditions have the actual celebration of Christ's birth extending beyond that date by a few years marking the year 98 A.D. as the beginning of it all.

And it is that beginning that is under fire most often today.

According to the History channel, that stalwart of liberalism, the institution of Christmas wasn't celebrated until the aforementioned 4th century, when it was decided to combat the paganistic ways of the secular community by aligning the celebration of the Messiah's birth with the celebration of pagan deities. Labeled the feast of the Nativity, it spread to Europe by the sixth century and Scandinavia by the eight century all the way from its Roman beginnings.

It is commonly thought that the declaration made by the Bishop of Rome setting the date in December was to combat the pagan rituals of Saturnalia--Saturn, the god of agriculture, or Juvenilia--a celebration honoring the children of Rome, and quite possibly the celebration of Mithra's birth, one of the most sacred days in some Roman's lives. The period chosen was celebrated by most Europeans as the end of the winter's worst and the beginning of longer days and extended hours of sunlight after the darker and shorter days of winter. This was the time where meat was in abundance since most Europeans slaughtered their cattle for winter food (and to not have to feed the livestock). Also, the beer and wine were perfectly fermented by December's end, ready for drinking. Several cultures had traditions already in place for the winter solace, where light and birth were celebrated after the long, dark, and cruel winters. Whatever the true reason behind the declaration of Pope Julius I (the Bishop of Rome), most will point to the fact that Christmas celebrated at this time, the winter solace, had the effect of adopting and absorbing pagan rituals of the time into the fledgling Christian movement, making it popular to adopt the idea of Christmas throughout the world.

And it worked, apparently, because by the Middle Ages the celebration of Christ's birth had replaced nearly all the pagan religious observations. But even then, Christmas wasn't a 'holy' day in the terms of its celebration; believers attended church and then continued the celebration in a manner reminiscent of Mardi Gras, in a drunken, carnival type atmosphere through communities far and wide. The poor would approach the rich and demand food and drink, and the nobility of the times would repay any real or imagined 'debt' to society by entertaining those poor unfortunates. But, in 1645, the Puritans declared Christmas part of the decadence of European culture and cancelled it, pointing to the fact that the real date of Jesus' birth wasn't proclaimed in any biblical accounts. It was only until Charles II was restored to the throne that Christmas returned to European shores.

Due to the fact that the Pilgrims were even more orthodox in their beliefs than the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell, Christmas wasn't widely celebrated in the New World until it was given status as a federal holiday on June 26th, 1870. In fact, from 1659 until 1681, it was illegal to celebrate the Christmas holiday in the city of Boston, with a fine of five schillings if caught. By contrast, Captain John Smith spoke of the Christmas holiday being enjoyed by the settlement of Jamestown without incident. True to their Puritan origins, most Americans didn't celebrate the holiday. Even Congress met on the 25th day of December 1789, the first Christmas holiday celebrated under the new Constitution of the young country known as the United States of America.

It is claimed by most secular scholars that best-selling author Washington Irving, in 1819, was responsible for the embracing of Christmas by most Americans. In a time of class conflicts and turmoil in the economy, where unemployment was high and gang rioting occurred during this winter celebration, Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent. which recounted the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house where the squire invited peasants into the home for the holiday. In contrast with the riotous crowds that were common enough to force New York to create the first police force, Irving showed the two classes joining together effortlessly in a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday that ignored wealth or social status, where 'ancient customs' were enjoyed and celebrated.

It was Charles Dicken's celebrated holiday tale, A Christmas Carol that sealed the holiday within the hearts of the members of the Victorian society, showing the benefits of a celebration of charitable works and good will towards others. This embracing of the holiday apparent reflected the family dynamic where parents were trying to be more emotionally sensitive to their children and less disciplined. Such a holiday would provide the means to lavish attention and gift-giving upon the children without cries of spoiling them.

And, as American culture embraced this holiday as part of the national identity, the great melting pot assimilated the cultural icons of its immigrants to create something truly unique to the United States. With traditions of illuminating our homes coming from Scandinavian immigrants, the Yule Log from Nordic traditions, evergreen trees decorated to be Christmas trees brought by German immigrants, and
Poinsettias from Mexico, our Christmas traditions have been woven from the very fabric of our diverse culture into a tapestry of joyful celebration.

But like the wrapping paper used to cover the gifts that we give one another during this holiday, the traditions that adorn the households of Christian Americans and Secular Americans alike are just that; coverings of the true gift, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Even that event, at the heart of this Christmas holiday, has come under division in the modern age.

To understand the different views, you have to understand the two sides; conservatives and liberals. Yes, even in the Christian family, this division exists and it divides this holiday as much as it divides the faith.

Conservative Christians believe that the Bible is inerrant or free of errors and, despite the fact it was written by several different people on several continents over several years, it is inspired by God and therefore not of man but God. Liberal Christians believe that the Scriptures were written by fallible authors who developed the gradual theological beliefs that created the Christian movement. It is these two widely divergent approaches to the Christmas story that has created the society that has spawned the debate surrounding this family holiday.

Looking into the stories of the birth of Christ, centerpoint to the Christmas story, found in Matthew 1:1 to 2:12 and Luke 1:5 to 2:20, we jump into the pool of debate surrounding the imagery of the baby Jesus. For Conservative Christians, these stories are how it all happened 2,000 plus years ago in the town of Bethlehem……

But we are faced with several problems, according to the liberal brethren amongst the Body of Christ, such as the virgin birth. Both Matthew and Luke mention it, but it seems to be missing out of the accounts of John, Mark, and any of Paul's letters. Assumption of modern society is that the 'dirt', those things that are unusual or strange, make the headlines and the stories of Mark, John, and Paul would be those early headlines…..but the details of a virgin birth seem to be missing. It is possible that they just didn't feel it needed repeating but the omission is unexplained.

Jesus' genealogy seems to only have 42 generations from Adam to Jesus in Matthew, and this is explained as only the majors were mentioned, with the minors skipped over. This seems to be a logical assumption, at least to conservatives, since Matthew was writing to the Jewish people and was highlighting Jesus' royal line. Of course, right on top of this debated point, we have the two different genealogies where Jesus is descendant of Solomon in Matthew and descendent of Nathan in Luke. This is easily explained in the different focuses of the genealogies, as Matthew was referring to Joseph's line and Luke to Mary's, both of who were of royalty.

Of course, there are historical differences that are highlighted in the stories of the Christ child's birth, such as Herod and Quirinius being referred to as governor at the time, the male only census that would've precluded Mary's journeying with Joseph, and the Christmas Star.

With the liberal mindset, of course, the story of the virgin birth of the Messiah becomes something more of myth and fantasy than what church tradition has believed. This is what has given birth to the movements of the emergent church, the Universalist movement, and the so-called Christian Left. The liberal Christian believes that the document, the as-yet undiscovered "Q", was written around 50 A.D. (or what is being rapidly replaced by C.E. for Common Era) and through reconstruction by theologians of its text, there is no discovery of a unique birth of the Christ child, as no mythical virginal birth had yet had time to be developed.

The writings of Paul and Mark are pointed out next in support of the christmas stories of Matthew and Luke being mythical in a majority of its context. Paul mentions the birth of Christ in his letters, Galatians 4:4 "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law" and Romans 1:3, "...Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh." As you can see by the verses shown, Paul thought nothing special happened in the birth of the Messiah. Mark, written by an unknown author around 70 AD, mentions nothing of a special birth and surely would've mentioned it as this is considered the first gospel account written.

And there are more points that liberal Christians point out in regards to the Christmas story, from Matthew's gospel with genealogy errors to the virgin birth being nothing more than an attempt to make a mistranslated prophecy work so that Jesus would appear to be a great hero or even a god, and thus fit into the Mediterranean religions of the time.

All the points made here and those I haven't touched on have their detractors and supporters. These, according to both camps, are central to the story and thus the faith. The Christmas story sets the stage for the rest of the Christian story, of redemption and salvation.

But if you even remove the debated points in the Christmas story, we are left with the fact that "Jeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) was born to Mary and Joseph in Nazareth in the fall circa 4 BC." (or BCE if you subscribe to the new secular adaptation of before Common Era).

And, if you remove all the debate surrounding the Christmas season, you are still left with the biggest holiday celebrated in the world. Although it is largely secularized and commercialized from its simplistic beginnings, the exchanging of gifts on Christmas Day is still the main element of this holiday that crosses theological, secular, and religious lines.

Caroling concerts, Christmas trees, office parties, Catholic Midnight Mass, and a variety of television programs hosting varying stories in the traditions of this holiday show that regardless of the reason, there is one fact that remains for the season.......

It is a celebration of the Light, whether secular or Christian, celebrated with family and friends throughout the world.

Just a note: I am a conservative evangelical follower of Christ, believing that the Bible is inerrant and protected by God regardless of the human hands that wrote His words. I believe in the prophectic birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ, who came to earth as man, yet still God, to save mankind from the punishment of sin, which is death. To me, regardless of what your doctrinal beliefs are, this is absolute: That Jesus Christ died upon the Cross and after three days rose again, resurrected in the body crucified. That Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is the Way, the Truth, and the Light and none shall come to the Father God except through His sacrifice.

That is the reason I celebrate the virgin birth of Jesus on Christmas, because that is where the journey of restoration of mankind a manger, lined with straw, and crowded by stable animals by Mary and Joseph, the earthly parents of our King, Messiah, and Lord.

I also put up a Christmas Tree in the living room to gather around with friends and family in a house lit by lights and decorations that blaze in the night. Traditions that help me and my family focus on the reason behind the celebration, which is far beyond the mere giving of gifts to those we love and cherish.




James Diggs said...

Another note: I am a liberal, evangelical, emergent follower of Christ, believing that scripture is the trustworthy testimony of the church. I believe in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, and God with us. I believe that through this incarnation God met humanity where we are because we could not otherwise ever get to God on our own. I believe the death of Christ on the cross is the extension of the incarnational presence of God through Christ, God with us, and that he remained with us even though it meant bearing the sins and injustice of mankind. I believe that Christ rose from the dead on the third day and thus if we embrace the life of Christ here on earth where he met us in the incarnation we will also have the hope for that life to continue with him for eternity. I also believe that Jesus himself, not religion or doctrine or tradition, is the way, the truth and the life and it is only through him that people are connected to God.

That is the reason I celebrate the virgin birth of Jesus on Christmas, because the incarnation is much more than just where the journey of restoration of mankind began, it is where God himself became one with humanity so we could become one with him as his children. The incarnation is more than just the precursor to the cross; I think it is more accurate to say that the cross is the extension of the incarnation. So I believe in the great significance of the Christmas message, that the Word became flesh and was born in a manger, lined with straw, and crowded by stable animals by Mary and Joseph, the earthly parents of our King, Messiah, and Lord.

My family and I also put up a Christmas Tree in the living room to gather around with friends in our home, lit by lights and decorations that blaze in the night. We also have embraced the Advent season this year as we anxiously look for the Kingdom of heaven to continue to break through in this world we live in today. Traditions like this help us focus on the reason behind the celebration, which gives far more meaning to the gifts we give to each other, to the poor, to the widowed, and to the orphaned. We understand that the light of the Kingdom shines far brighter than any Christmas display in the kindness we share with others as the body of Christ carries on the incarnational presence in the world of our Lord Jesus Christ.





Navalpride said...

Thanks James for your comments. I appreciate your stance and trust that your Christmas may be bright, blessed, and full of joy.
In Christ,

Navalpride said...

One question though, Pastor Griggs....

Do you believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Light and none will come to God but through Him?

I don't understand how that can mesh with "thus if we embrace the life of Christ here on earth where he met us in the incarnation we will also have the hope for that life to continue with him for eternity" Isn't hope established in the acceptance of the sacrifice? Or am I misunderstanding you?

James Diggs said...


Sorry, I did not see your question for me until now. I think I stated that I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life in my previous comment. I think our hope then is established by faith that allows us to lean into the reality of Jesus Christ as these things which would include his sacrifice on the cross.

I think as followers of Jesus we do far more than just accept the work Jesus did on the cross for us, we accept the very life and person of Jesus Christ himself. Too often we treat the cross as just a “get out of jail free card” and in terms of spiritual economics. This is why I think it is important to see the cross in the context of the incarnation as we remember that God met us in humanity to be with us and the cross then is an extension of his incarnation where he also meets us in the suffering and death that goes along with the injustice and sin humanity has brought on itself.