Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas 2008

Some say: “Christ is the Reason for the Season.” Many chime that: "This is the season to be jolly, and a season for giving." Others will seek to win the mind-share battle by pitching Christianity against the ever-popular Santa Claus. Many will be singing Christmas carols and sharing songs of peace and goodwill to all people. With the Christmas shopping craze rising to a crescendo by Christmas Eve, shopping malls and merchants will be playing up all kinds of Christmas songs to entice and sustain the Christmas mood.

Christmas a Pagan Festival?
What exactly is Christmas? Is it simply the singing of carols, the buying and giving of gifts? Is it joining the mad crowd of busy shoppers to get some last minute gifts? What if after all the bustle and jostle, we end up buying things for people we love, that they don't need? What if we miss out the opportunity to give to the people who needs the things more than we do? What if the heart of giving is actually a disguise for trying to keep-up-with-the-Christmas-Jones? It will not be fair for me to paint all shoppers in that light. Christmas time is a good opportunity to start giving of ourselves to show our appreciation for the people we love. It is the thought that counts, not the bills that mount, especially in this uncertain economic climate. Sometimes, it makes me glad simply to know that retail outlets are given a rare revenue boost during this festive season, after struggling through many months of drought in terms of shopper dollars. The word 'Christmas' is not a word recorded in Scripture. It comes from 2 words: 'Christ' and 'Mass', a reference to the Roman Catholic ritual of attending Mass. If it is a gathering of people in the name of Christ, then we are celebrating 'Christmas' every Sunday, or every time Christians gather together. If that is the case, what do we make of Jesus's birth? I have heard many times that Christmas is actually a pagan celebration. The date Dec 25th being chosen as Christmas Day goes right back to the Roman era to coincide with the Winter festival. There is a brief BBC report that talks about this. If Christmas is paganistic, why should Christians be so worked up when commercial organizations twist the Christmas story into a merchandise glory? After-all, if Christmas has pagan elements (at least in its origins), should not businesses take-back what was originally theirs? If Christmas is pagan in origin, should Christians celebrate it?

I guess some will choose not to. A good ex-colleague of mine insists that his church never celebrates Christmas because of this reason. In fact, to him, Easter is much more significant. In that sense, I can see his passion as the reason for hope is because Christ rose from the dead. For me, I will not be too disturbed if people choose to celebrate Christmas by things alone. However, when people try to twist and turn the birth of Christ and the story of Christianity, it is a different matter altogether. For instance, if one puts Santa Claus in the same league as Jesus, that will be deception blatantly paraded in front of shoppers and gullible children. I submit that Christmas time, like any other time, is a time to pray, and to cherish one another in the name of Christ. There is no need to rush out to grab gifts just to show people we love, of our affections. What makes us think that 364 days of neglect can be easily compensated by one day of showering gifts? What makes us think that the name of Christ can be 'protected' by attacking effigies of Santa Claus on this one day of the year, when Christians have the opportunity to share the name of Christ all year round? Don't get me wrong. I am not against Church-wide remembrance of the birth of Christ. I am even inclined to get the thought of 'Santa Claus' out of Churches and sanctuaries. What I am curious about is, does the remembrance of Christmas Day actually make our love for Jesus extra special, like caramel or strawberry topping on a fragrant blob of French Vanilla ice-cream? No. Christmas is special, but it should not be that special, especially when everyday of the year is a day given unto God.

How then should we view Christmas?
If Christmas has a pagan origin, and if Christmas Day should not be treated anything more special than the rest, should Christians celebrate Christmas Day? My answer will be both 'no' and 'yes.'

Why NO: 'No' in the sense that as Christians, we are free to remember God anytime in prayer, to sing praises to Christ all year round. The kingdom of God is always close to us but never closed from us. Jesus hears us every time we call. He does not need a birthday cake with more than 2000 candles for us to struggle with. That will be a logistical headache. He does not need a birthday party bash that comprises invited guests from all denominations and all other church affiliations. It might trigger lots of doctrinal disputes in one building. Mark chapter 1 gives us a clue on how then we should view Christmas. You might be surprised, but the gospel writer of Mark actually skip the Nativity narrative, and goes straight to write about the adult Jesus rather than the baby Jesus. It is a quotation from Isaiah.
"It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way' -
a voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" (Mark 1:2-3)
Why YES: On the other hand, I will also have to recognize a 'yes' in terms of an opportunity to present Christ in a special way during this season. Yes, while Christmas festivals do have smacks of paganism in its origin, Christians ought to make use of this time to share the gospel in a way that people will normally not be as open. After-all, if the name of Christ is in the word 'Christmas,' there is a good chance that people will not resist the gospel as much, compared to other days of the year. Of course, Christians still need to observe decent courtesy not to shove the gospel down unwilling throats. While Mark ignores the nativity story, Matthew and especially Luke take the trouble to describe the humble beginnings of baby Jesus's time. Matthew gives his Jewish readers a genealogical treat before his historical entry point. Luke goes even further by describing the birth of John the Baptist BEFORE the birth of Jesus.

What then do we make of the differences of the nativity stories and Mark's version? There is at least one similarity I want to highlight. All of the synoptic gospel writers refer back to the Old Testament. Mark points to Malachi and Isaiah, Luke (Isaiah) and Matthew to Micah and others. The point is: All of them link back to the Old Testament story, about the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ. It is not simply a birth of a little baby. It is the FULFILLMENT of the Word. It is like John say: The Word became flesh and moved into our neighbourhood. That is the meaning of Christmas: a sign that reminds us Christ became human and lived among us. It is like God telling us: "I told you so." It is like God assuring us: "I am with you in person."

My fellow readers, celebrate Christmas, but do so with an eye on the coming kingdom of God. Christmas is not a closed event where we forget the birthday person after blowing the flames off the candles, and then eat the cake and leave the mess behind. It is not even a time to be jolly frolicking in the madness of the shopping rush, or anxiously keeping up with the carolling demands by various singing groups. Instead, it is a time to remember that Scripture has been fulfilled in the past, being manifested in the present, and that the kingdom of God will come in all its glory in the resurrection future. While it is true that Christ is the reason for the season, it is more true that Christ is not simply a little baby in the manger, stuck on the plastic or wooden arms of the nativity toy set. It is not even the use of the word 'Christ' in greeting cards and electronic wishes traveling round the world. Christmas is a time to remember once again that love is meant to be shared with one another, because Christ first loved us. The first testament has been fulfilled. Let us enthusiastically await the fulfillment of the second testament, the eschatological hope for all. Let me conclude with just one more way to remember Christmas. The best way to honour Christ is to remember why Christ came in the first place. He came to do the will of God. He came to glorify and complete the prophecy of his heavenly Father. In that light, if we really want to remember Jesus during this season, remember to do the will of God, to think on the thoughts of Christ. That is the best way to celebrate Christmas. Giving and Forgiving, Sharing and Caring, Loving and Belonging one to another.

Have a Blessed Christmas with family and friends.


No comments:

Latest Posts