Snow is one of the prominent themes of the holiday, but most of the world doesn’t get snow in December, so people decorate with inflatable snowmen and twinkle lights meant to imitate icicles.
Christmas is hailed as a time of joy, love, and peace, but many feel profound sadness and strife due to lost loved ones and broken families. And in spite of it being a season of giving, the majority of advertisements and sales focus on fulfilling selfish, materialistic desires.
On TV, the contrasts are unmistakable. One channel broadcasts the nativity story while the next airs a debate over whether Jesus was anyone worth celebrating. And a parade of politicians and talking heads fight over where and when it is appropriate to celebrate Christmas, while others work overtime to celebrate every religion’s traditions.
But perhaps the most puzzling contrast is between believers—between those who celebrate the birth of Christ and those who argue that Christians should have no part in such a “pagan” holiday. In fact, some Christians oppose Christmas with as much (or more!) vigor as those who celebrate it.
The arguments are the same every year: Jesus wasn’t born on December 25; Jeremiah 10 condemns Christmas trees; Christmas is a Catholic mass created to syncretize with a Roman pagan feast; Christmas is a man-made feast while the biblical feasts are ignored. You’ve probably received some chain emails to that effect already this season.
In the face of such opposition, how should the rest of the church respond? Should we even bother to celebrate such a widely-contested holiday?
In a video blog last year, we asked John MacArthur that very question. As usual, his response cut right to the heart of the issue, pushing past the smaller matters that so often trip us up. He said:
In my view, any opportunity that we can have to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ, we need to grasp that opportunity. We would do well to celebrate His birth every single day. We would do well to proclaim His virgin birth, as God in human flesh, every day. But if the world wants to give us a day and a season in which the whole of humanity focuses on the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, we would be foolish not to capitalize on that.
We waste such an opportunity when we contend with a godless culture for the traditional trappings of the holiday. It’s pointless to debate over seasonal terminology or fight to keep nativity scenes in front of government buildings. And it’s profoundly vain to complain about whether or not a popular coffee shop’s cups are decorated with vague allusions to the season—especially when that coffee shop has a history of promoting and supporting immoral causes.
I want to be abundantly clear on this point—Christmas should not be about encouraging the world to go through the motions of the holiday and pay vague lip service to the Lord in the midst of their materialistic self-indulgence. Frankly, the less the world mimics the celebration of Christ’s birth, the more opportunities we have to be bold and clear with the gospel through our own celebrations.
However, believers can likewise go overboard with separation from the world’s celebration of Christmas, to the point that we forfeit any voice in the matter at all. I understand why some believers have strong misgivings about traditions that seem to serve no purpose other than to perpetuate childhood memories–especially when those traditions have questionable origins. But does the wholesale rejection of the holiday improve the testimony of God’s people and adorn the truth of His gospel? Or is it merely a pious stiff arm to one of the church’s best annual opportunities for evangelizing the lost world?
The truth is, when you consider the paganism of Roman society, there is not much we inherited from them that was not in some way associated with their religious practices. That point was well-made recently by Ryan Reeves on the Reformation 21 blog:
The Romans certainly had feasting on December 25th, as it was the darkest day of the year, and if you live in a world where the days are dark by 5pm, the thought of Spring on the horizon was reason enough to party. Think of it as a Roman 4th of July, only barbeque was not yet invented. It is true that Romans sacrificed to the gods on this day, but they did that as often as they could: at the table, before an arena match, and even at public urinals. For Christians to utterly do away with celebrations that coincide with Roman holidays would be to reinvent the calendar itself. In the end, the church felt that feasting on a day that looked from darkness towards light was an appropriate time to celebrate the coming of the Light of the World.
The simple fact is the vast majority of the world doesn’t associate modern Christmas traditions with ancient Roman paganism, so shirking the former doesn’t necessarily equate to disavowing the latter. And arguing that we shouldn’t celebrate the birth of our Lord leaves little room for expressing the wonder of the incarnation, which is at the heart of the gospel. Such heavy-handedness doesn’t adorn or explain the gospel nearly as much as it plays into the holier-than-thou stereotype for Christians.
All the traditions of Christmas are just that—traditions. Inasmuch as they foster loving relationships, generosity, and worship of the Savior, they are commendable. But if they cause us to be self-focused and distracted from what really matters, they should be set aside.
We should be single-minded, focused solely on Christ and the tremendous blessings we enjoy through Him. And we ought to look for any opportunity to extend the blessed news of the salvation He made possible to the world around us. How do we accomplish that when we waste so much time complaining about coffee cups and trees?
This Christmas, do everything you can to make your celebration an expression of the angel’s words to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth: “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).
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