Worrying about the actual date of Christmas may miss the point of it.
For just a moment I’d like us to ignore the obvious – that it is the celebration of Christ’s birth, because if we were totally honest with ourselves, that isn’t what it means to the vast majority of people who celebrate it. I mean, look around us. This is a very festive looking room, but what don’t you see? I’d like to take a few moments to examine the history that surrounds some of the traditions of Christmas.
Many people realize the date of Christmas was originally used by pagans to celebrate the passing of the winter solstice. They knew that by this time in December that the shortest day and longest night had passed, and with that came the promise of longer days, shorter nights and eventually spring. The date of December 25th, as the celebration of Christ’s birth, however, was first seen in a Roman calendar dating from approximately 336 AD.
But it is very unlikely that Christ was born during the winter months. Why not? Good question. In Luke 2:8 we read: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Now, the usual time for the sheep to be kept in the fields surrounding Bethlehem is after the last of the winter rains in April and before they start up again in November. So, if there were shepherds in the fields then the birth likely occurred between April and November.
But December wasn’t always the choice for celebrating Christ’s birthday. In the two hundred years after the death of Christ, Christians celebrated his birth on January 6, April 19, May 20 and several other dates. A few years ago a British physicist and astronomer, David Hughes, calculated that the date of Christ’s birth was September 17th, 7 BC.
He based this on scientific evidence, including that of a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation of Pisces. He concluded that this extraordinary celestial display was the “star” seen by the distant wise men. But the truth is that we really don’t know when Christ was born. Historically it would have had to have been before 4 BC. which was when Herod the great died, and again, because of the weather patterns it is doubtful that it would have happened outside of that seven month spread between April and November. But that really doesn’t matter, does it?
Other Christmas traditions come from all over the world. We know, for instance, that early pagan cultures, including the Romans, the Egyptians and the Celts used evergreens in their celebrations to signify eternal life. The Christmas tree didn’t actually come into usage until the 16th century, and the home of the Christmas tree is Germany. Why was it used? One story has it that it became popular because of a medieval play about Adam and Eve. The production included the paradise tree, which was a fir tree hung with apples signifying the forbidden fruit in the garden. So, in the beginning having a “paradise tree” in your house was a fad.
At the same time though, was another tradition from Germany: that of the Christmas pyramid, which was a triangular shelving unit that held Christmas figurines, fruit and gifts. The pyramid was decorated with a star, signifying the star of the east. Eventually the paradise tree and Christmas pyramid merged and today we have the Christmas tree.
Now, I also heard that it was Martin Luther who started this tradition. So I did a little research and found this story, “Legend has it that Martin Luther started the Christmas tree practice. According to the story, he noticed the starlit sky as he walked home one Christmas eve.
As he looked at the star studded sky through the naked tree branches, it looked as if the stars were shining on the branches themselves. When he arrived home, Martin Luther placed a small fir tree inside his house and decorated it with lighted candles.”
I would like to tell you that this story came from encyclopedia Britannica, or perhaps World Book, but the truth is that it came from a definitive yet obscure reference volume that many of you probably aren’t familiar with – Charlie Brown’s fourth super book of questions and answers.
Another tradition is Santa Clause and we know that Santa Claus started out as Saint Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, who in the fourth century gave presents to needy children. Our modern term comes from “Sinter Claes” which was the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. It was Clement Clarke Moore, however, who in 1843 gave Saint Nicholas his red suit, white beard and the reindeer through the poem known now as the “Night before Christmas”
Christmas is made up of all kinds of traditions, myths and stories, most of them extra biblical, but that doesn’t answer the question: “Why Christmas?”
As I mulled that question over and over, I thought of a quote by the atheist Voltaire. Last century Voltaire said, “if God did not exist it would be necessary for man to invent him.” Well, it started me thinking, if Christmas didn’t exist – would it be necessary for Christians to invent it? I did point out that Christmas wasn’t celebrated on December 25th until almost three hundred years after the death of Christ. But we also know that early church writings indicate that the birth of Christ was being celebrated in the church as early as 95 AD.
You see Christmas is simply the day that God walked down the stairs of heaven with a baby in his arms. Why do we celebrate Christmas: because of the very wonder of that event. We aren’t celebrating some pagan Roman celebration commemorating the “birthday of the unconquered sun. s-u-n.”
No, we are celebrating the “birthday of the unconquered Son, s-o-n.” We celebrate because of the wonder of His conception.
Did you ever think of yourself as a miracle? In an expression of love two separate cells came together, and at that moment in time a new life began. Each of those two essential cells brought twenty-three chromosomes into partnership to mystically form one cell with forty six chromosomes. Each of those chromosomes brought thousands of genes into the union to produce an entirely new and unique cell. That cell, either male or female, was a complete biological blueprint of a brand new human being which was to be you. Never before had there ever been a cell like that and never again would there be a cell like that. Each of us is special. We are walking, talking miracles.
But as special as each of us are – listen to a conversation that preceded the conception of Jesus. Luke 1:26-35: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy– the Son of God.
We are miracles because in God’s creative genius two cells come together to form one cell and then double forty five times to become a complete human being with over 30,000,000 cells. But when it came time for the creative genius himself to take human form it wasn’t two cells – it was only one, because in the womb of this young virgin the Holy Spirit touched an ovum and the most miraculous of all lives began.
Charles Dickens said, “It is good to be children sometimes and never better then at Christmas when the worlds mighty founder was a child himself.”
And so at the birth of Christ, God stepped outside of the natural laws He himself had laid down so that the birth of his son would be a time of wonder and amazement.
We celebrate because of the wonder of his birth. How many fathers do we have here this morning? Do you remember when your first child was born? You probably wanted to holler from the roof of the hospital. I think most of us were so proud, we might have thought that we had done it all by ourselves. Well, God felt like that with his son.
In Jewish tradition when a child was born the friends and neighbors of the couple would come around and serenade the new child, of course, the more important the family the bigger the choir, right? Now Mary and Joseph were far from home and not a part of the Bethlehem society, but God wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to provide for his one and only Son. In Luke 2:13-14 we read: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” God provided a heavenly choir to serenade his son. Wouldn’t you think that a father that was that proud of the birth of his son would want that birth to be celebrated? God was shouting from the rooftops, look at my son, my beautiful precious boy.
He’s got his mothers eyes, and look at those little fingers and toes – so cute.
The birth of Christ, in the little town of Bethlehem, could have been an obscure event, noticed by very few people. But that wouldn’t have been fitting the birth of a King, even if the King was born to a carpenter and his bride.
I marvel at the fact that God was willing to send his son, but I marvel more at the fact that he was willing to send his son as a baby, to be born in a hostile land, to grow up and experience pain, frustration and illness. I’ve always wondered what Jesus was like as a teenager. I wonder if it’s significant that nothing is mentioned about Jesus after he was twelve. I wonder if he ever had a black eye, or a bloody nose, and if so I wonder who gave it to him. I wonder if there was a girl that he liked, and perhaps teased.
Now, you might think that I am way out of line, but ask your self why Jesus had to come as a baby. He could have come as an adult, but the reason he came as a child was so he could experience life as we experience life: that means with all the bumps and knocks, and temptations that we go through.
We need to celebrate the fact that Christ was born, because if it wasn’t for that day in Bethlehem so many years ago, our future wouldn’t look so bright. It was only because Christ was born, that he was able to die for our sins.
We need to celebrate Christmas because of the wonder of his love.
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Eph 2:4-5: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved–”
1 John 3:1: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
Finally, in 1 John 4:9: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.”
One of the biggest complaints about Christmas today is that it is too commercialized, presents under the tree seem to be the name of the game. But Eleanor Roosevelt had an interesting thought on the subject. She said, “If you spend money to give people joy, you are not being commercial. It is only when you feel obliged to do something about Christmas that the spirit is ruined.”
The birth of Christ was the greatest gift that could ever be given, and it wasn’t given out of an obligation, it was given out of love. God loves us. He loves us so much that He gave his only Son, to be born of a virgin, to live 33 years, to die on a cross, and to rise on the third day, so that we could have eternal life.
If we don’t celebrate anything else this Christmas season then let’s celebrate the love of God. There is every reason in the world to celebrate the birth of our Savior, after all his Father celebrated it. If there is a fault with Christmas it is what we do with it.
There’s a story told of the little girl who was praying one Christmas Eve and in the excitement got mixed up and prayed, “and forgive us our Christmases.” Maybe that needs to be our prayer too.