Summary: Jesus came at the right time. We need to be careful not to bi-pass Bethlehem.
Putting the Easter Back in Christmas, Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
I’ve been reading about how Japan celebrates Christmas, which has become a major event over there. They put up decorations, exchange presents, send cards, sing yuletide songs, decorate trees, serve special seasonal treats (especially strawberry-decorated cakes), and make a big fuss over St Nick, Rudolph and Frosty. Their Santa is sometimes dressed like a Samurai (I wonder if he carries a sword). It is very important for single adults to have a date for a romantic dinner on Christmas Eve. And for reasons I couldn’t determine, a big Christmas tradition is attending a concert of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The one thing the Japanese do not do at Christmas is honor Christ. That’s because Japan is nearly 99% Shinto and Buddhist. A missionary to Japan was asked if Christmas was Santa’s birthday. Only ½ of 1% of Japan’s population is Christian. So where do you think they got this commercial version of Christmas? From us. They are attracted to the glitter and romance of the American version of Christmas, and have adopted nearly everything except the spiritual significance of the season.
I’ve also been reading how many people in our country don’t wish others a “Merry Christmas” anymore, for fear of offending non-believers. Some public schools have had to become “Japanese” in their observance of the holiday, and many businesses are canceling their Christmas parties. We are experiencing freedom from religion. We should follow the Star, not the crowd.
Even Christians can miss the point of Christmas. We put up our Nativity sets without thinking about why Jesus came to Bethlehem. The sober truth is that He came to die. A popular Christmas song, “Mary’s Boy-Child” says: “…and man shall live forevermore because of Christmas Day.” Not so much because of Christmas--because of Easter. The manger led to a Cross. We need to put the Easter back into Christmas.
The early Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas. Their focus was on Christ’s resurrection, and it wasn’t until the 4th Century AD that the birth of Jesus was observed in any way. Birthdays weren’t considered important; only death days were. In New England, Christmas wasn’t made a holiday in Massachusetts until 1856. I’m not trying to be a Scrooge; I don’t mean to imply that Christmas is unimportant--we learn at Christmas of the obedience of Mary, the faith of John the Baptist’s parents, the adoration of the shepherds and wisemen, the prophecy of Simeon, and the fear of Herod. We learn how the Rich became poor, how the King became a servant, how God became a man.
One thing I love about New England is the snow; I remember some very brown Christmases in Texas. My next-door neighbor used to make a snowman each year out of tumbleweed! Irving Berlin’s song White Christmas was written in Los Angeles, California, as a kind of lament for the lack of snow we associate with Christmas, “just like the ones I used to know.” Yet was there snow in Bethlehem? There could have been, if Jesus was born in December.
Because the early Christians didn’t celebrate Christ’s birth, they weren’t sure exactly when it occurred. December was not arbitrarily chosen, and it wasn’t picked because little was going on that month. December was picked precisely because there was a LOT going on. The Winter Solstice and the feast of Saturnalia were major pagan ceremonies, and the Christians decided to inject some reality and head-on competition into December with a competing festival, a subtle protest against idolatry. Saturnalia honored the Persian Sun-God Mithra; Christians chose to honor the “Son of Righteousness” instead. The church to hold a special Mass, a Christ’s Mass, thus the origin of the name “Christmas.” One church leader said, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it.”
Much later, in the year 1223, St Francis in Italy popularized the crèche, using wooden figures of Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus, the animals and shepherds. In those days, Christmas was marked by prayer and fasting, not parties and eating. In the German city of Bamberg, close to where I used to live, and where friends of mine are stationed, the town is known as the “krippenstadt”, because it has the largest number of Nativity sets in the country, some very elaborate and large, the largest display being in the outdoor Weinnacht Markt, or Christmas market in the center of town. People gather to hear carols, eat potato pancakes and lebküchen (Christmas cookies), drink glüwein (hot spiced wine) and say a prayer by the crèche.
Though December was chosen as the month to celebrate, it’s more likely that Jesus may have been born in the springtime, because the shepherds were out in the fields, “keeping watch over their flock by night”. According to one historian, this is lambing time, the season when lambs were being born. In the winter the sheep would normally be kept in pens, not in the fields…though some shepherds kept their flocks in the fields year-round. The sheep pastured near Bethlehem were raised for Temple sacrifice, making it appropriate that Jesus, the Lamb of God came into the world at that special place.