Sunday, November 03, 2013

Christ and Christmas: Fact, Fiction, Faith, and Feeling

It’s often called “the most wonderful time of the year,” and with good reason. I love the holiday season. It's all special to me: the giving and receiving, the time with family and friends, and of course the food! I am thankful whenever and wherever any truth about Jesus Christ is recognized. He was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, as a matter of historical fact, and He is King of kings, Lord of lords!

As this time approaches each year, I feel the need to respond to questions that people have asked me about Christ and Christmas. There are so many different and confusing feelings, perspectives, and preferences. Sincere, precious people have been taught or led to believe conflicting things.

As people who try to stay as close to the Word as possible, we need to determine what the Bible does and does not teach. If we do not, then we may unintentionally perpetuate some misconceptions. This blog post seems to me a helpful way to address these matters.

I once met a man who told me that he was named after one of the "three wise men." It happened at Groot Drakenstein Correctional Centre, in the Western Cape of South Africa. This former prison is famous for the fact that Nelson Mandela spent the last three of his 27 years of his incarceration there. At a youth retreat where I spoke in 2010, after the prison had been transformed into a type of lodge for group gatherings, I met the caretaker. He told me confidently, “You know my name because it is in the Bible. My name is Melchior. I go by ‘Mel.’ I am named after one of the three wise men who came to see Jesus.”

The name “Melchior” and the number "three" are not in the Bible.

A friend of ours, when she was new to the church, told me, “I love the Bible story of the Little Drummer Boy who played his drums by the manger the night Jesus was born.”

That little drummer boy is not in the Bible, but just in a song.

A sister in Christ was surprised awhile back to see a note in her new study Bible that indicated correctly that the Magi (often called “Wise Men”) did not bring their gifts to Jesus on His actual birthday. They never came to the manger. Yet most “nativity scenes” place the Magi beside the manger on the same night He was born.

These Magi ("wise men") were not there on the night Jesus was born. These popular “nativity scenes” contradict what the Bible says.

Once a sister asked me, "Why doesn't 'our church' have a candlelight Christmas Eve service?" Others have asked, “I saw a Facebook post that said, ‘Happy Birthday, Jesus! – December 25.’ Is that Christ’s birthday? Are we wrong not to have a birthday party for Him?”

The Bible does not indicate the date of Jesus' birth. The early church did not celebrate it as a church event or have a birthday party, either on December 25 or on any other date.

I am always interested in knowing what the Bible actually teaches. What are the facts? And how did the various man-made traditions about this or that get started and become so widely accepted? Is it important for us to get the facts, as best we can, and to separate fact from fiction? Can we do so, while respecting individual feelings and opinions? I believe so. Are we nitpicking when we want to know every detail that we can? I think not.

When I discuss matters such as these I do not question anyone’s sincerity or honesty. There has to be value in seeking just to determine the objective truth. Opinions and feelings are, well, just that: opinions and feelings. I have mine; you have yours. If there are facts that correct my opinions, I want to know about them. I’d like to assume that other people feel the same way.

When it comes to Christ and Christmas, the discussion can be especially touchy. People have so many different emotions, backgrounds, and beliefs. Those who stick to facts can be seen as cold, or even as majoring in minors. We certainly don’t want to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for the Lord or shout “Bah! Humbug!” to anyone who loves this special season. However, since we are investigating facts about Christ, we hope that our search regarding His birth has special value.

What are some of the facts?

● Fact: We do not know the number of the wise men, whether three or otherwise.

We only know that they brought three kinds of gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

● Fact: We do not know the names of the wise men.

It was much later that people assigned them the names Caspar or Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. See below for a discussion of their origin.

● Fact: The Bible does not call these men “kings,” as in, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

The “Magi” (from which word we get “magic”) were a caste of Persian priests who observed the stars. They were not merely “wise men” in the sense of counselors or advisers. So where and how did these other ideas originate?

According to one source, “The Western tradition of the names of the Magi derive from an early-6th-Century Greek manuscript, translated into the Latin Excerpta Latina Barbari. The description seems to be of a mosaic of the magi, possibly those at Ravenna. A pseudo-Bedan text, Collectanea or Excerpta et Collectanea, apparently continues the tradition of three kings. The text is said to be from the 8th or 9th century, of Irish origin, and first found in a printed edition of works ascribed (probably incorrectly) to St. Bede the Venerable at Basel in 1563. 

● Fact: The Magi did not visit Jesus on the night He was born.

Regardless of countless “nativity scenes” that place the Magi at the scene of Christ’s birth, it was not so. The sister in Christ mentioned above made this discovery while reading about Matt 2:11, which notes that the Magi met Jesus when He was a “child” living in a “house.” According to Matt 2:16, Jesus may have been as old as age two when these men arrived.

● Fact: The Feast of Epiphany, celebrated by many on January 6th each year to commemorate the Magi's visit, was unknown to the early church.

This feast, along with Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Christ, began much later than the first century. According to the Greek Orthodox Diocese of America, “The celebrations of Epiphany and Christmas, the writing of divine liturgies, the formulation of faith in the Creed, and so many other incidents are permanent foundations which took place during the 4th century and which developed as flowers springing from roots which had existed beforehand.”  

● Fact: Numerous other “holy days,” not mentioned or authorized in the New Testament, have been invented and placed on the so-called “liturgical calendar.”

People who are quite familiar with “Christmas” and “Easter” may not be aware that these are just two examples. For a fuller list see:  

Please take a close look at that list. It’s fascinating. Should Christians today observe - as official church events - these dates? Some are designated for “The Transfiguration,” “Ash Wednesday,” “Lent,” “Presentation of Jesus in the Temple,” "Maundy Thursday," “The Annunciation," etc.

Most evangelical believers reject virtually all these events because they lack biblical authority. They do not observe Ash Wednesday, for example, or the season of Lent which begins on that day. Yet many choose to observe just Christmas and Easter, which originated from the same traditional source as these others.

● Fact: We do not know the date, the month, the season, or even the year of Christ’s birth.

One source notes: “Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus’s birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement ... picked November 18. Hippolytus ... figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday ... An anonymous document[,] believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus’s birth on March 28” (Joseph L. Sheler, U.S. News & World Report, “In Search of Christmas,” Dec. 23, 1996, p. 58).

● Fact: We do know how, when, and why the developing Roman Catholic Church began celebrating Christ’s birth and why their leaders chose December 25.

 “But by the early fourth century, Church leaders decided they needed a Christian alternative to rival popular solstice celebrations. They chose December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth and held the first recorded Feast of the Nativity in Rome in A.D. 336. Whether they did so intentionally or not, Church leaders directly challenged a fellow up-start religion by placing the nativity on December 25th. The Cult of Mithras celebrated the birth of their infant god of light on the very same day.

“Church leaders may have also had theological reasons for choosing the date of Dec. 25th. The Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus had identified the 25th as Christ’s nativity more than a hundred years earlier. Chronographers reckoned that the world was created on the spring equinox and four days later, on March 25th, light was created. Since the existence of Jesus signaled a beginning of a new era, or new creation, the Biblical chronographers assumed Jesus’ conception would have also fallen on March 25th, placing his birth in December, nine months later.”

Did you catch that? They even set a date for Jesus’ conception – March 25.

● Fact: Protestant leaders such as John Calvin opposed Christmas as an annual official holy day celebrating the birth of Christ.

The Presbyterian Heritage Center notes, “Presbyterians have not always celebrated Christmas. Separating themselves from the Roman Catholic Church practices, Protestant Reformation leaders were generally critical of the existing ‘feast and saint days’ of the Catholic Church.

“The celebration of Christmas became a point of contention among many Protestants. Reformation leader Martin Luther permitted the celebration of certain feast days, including Christmas. Other reformers, including John Calvin and John Knox, preferred to worship only where specifically commanded in the Bible.”

● Fact: Attendance at church assemblies is higher for annual Christmas services than for the “regular” every-Lord’s-Day services throughout the year.

On the one hand, some will say, “Isn’t that great! At least these many people come to church once a year. Perhaps something will be said or done at that time that will cause or encourage them to become disciples of Christ!” Others will say, “We should give the same emphasis to every Lord’s Day, and not perpetuate the notion that December 25 is somehow more holy or special than each Lord's Day throughout the year.”

● Fact: We are taught “as of first importance” that Christ died for our sins, that He was buried, that He rose again, and that He appeared. 1 Cor 15:1-8

Of course His birth is significant and worthy of note! We should never minimize any of the events connected with the coming and life of Christ. There are the prophecies, the virgin birth, the miracles, the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the Transfiguration, and so much more. We should talk about, sing about, and think about these events often. “Joy to the World” is a powerful hymn any time of the year. Luke 2 is an inspiring passage to study in May as well as December. The fact remains, however, that the first-century church was never taught to have an official observance of any of these other events.

● Fact: There is only one memorial celebration that Jesus specifically instituted.

1 Co 11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Many people share the concern that there is more emphasis given to a non-biblical observance – Christmas – than there is given to the one biblical memorial that Jesus did authorize. If we put His specified instructions first we will gather at the Lord's table on the first day of every week. 

It can be noted that, without the birth (and other events), the death could not have occurred. Or that any emphasis on Christ in December, even if it misstates the date of His birth, is better than a purely secular commercial season. We can all be thankful – I certainly am – for the mention of Christ in December.

But the facts remain. It’s the blood that saves. It’s the cross that we commemorate. It’s simply the bread and the cup. No lights. No hype. No glitz. No fanfare.

So, whatever else we do, let’s meet at the table this Lord’s Day. His table. Every Lord’s Day. Because that’s just what He asked us to do.