• Mark Ledbetter

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

Redeeming Christmas: The 12 Sermons of Christmas[1]

November 1st is a red-letter day for radio stations offering both religious and secular Christmas music with hopes of creating the Christmas Spirit. It is the best of both worlds, religious and secular.

Released in 1963 by song artist Andy Williams, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”[2] became a perennial favorite with lyrics capturing seasonal gatherings of family and friends during Christmas. Other Yule Tide Favorites include, “Tis the Season to Be Jolly,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” and, of course, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

The airways and internet also offer a sampling of popular Christmas Carols, including “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and so many more that grace the airways with gentle reminders of the reason for the season.

Why the celebration, pageantry? Why do both the secular and religious build-up the celebration of a single day? What is it all about?

History of Christmas

Christmas is recognized by historians as a religious and secular holiday rich in biblical and cultural traditions. The name Christmas is derived by forming the title of Jesus, the Christ, with the Catholic observance of the Lord’s Supper, i.e., Mass. The word “Christmas” is not found until 1038 (Crīstesmæsse, Old English), literally “Christ’s Mass.”

Today Christmas is almost universally celebrated and is a cultural and, and certainly in the U.S., an economic phenomenon. It is observed by nativity scenes, Christmas trees, special movies and TV shows, musical extravaganzas, family gatherings, holiday foods, and the exchange of gifts. While it is Christ Jesus that is central to the observation or the reason for the season, it is Santa Claus that rides the crest of commercialization and in the retail world its best known figure.

What began in a modest manger is celebrated today in the dazzling atmosphere of the shopping mall and cathedrals. Retailers hope to capitalize on the gift-giving feature of Christmas with Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. A history of Christmas reveals significant insights into the origin and evolution of the Christmas observed today.

The Biblical Traditions

The religious themes and observations of Christmas have their origin in the Scriptures. It must be pointed out, however, that the observation of Christmas is not mandated by Scriptures but is derived from the narrative revealing the birth of Jesus. Like the Jewish observations of Hanukkah, Christmas is an “extrabiblical” observation based upon historical events.

Key themes that are captured by tradition include the Manger Scene, the Star, and the Three Kings. Many Christians are well acquainted with the prophetic fulfillment of the birth place of Jesus, Bethlehem, and the miraculous circumstances of the Virgin Birth.

The celebrated night of Jesus birth includes the glorious appearance of the angelic hosts announcing the birth of the King to shepherds watching their sheep is the theme of many Christmas Hymns. The Wise Men bearing gifts from afar are captured in Nativity sets and song. The star guiding the Wise Men by night has provided deep consideration by the greatest scientific minds seeking to unravel the mystery.

Observation in the Early Church

If one looks for the Christmas celebration in the early church, they will be sadly disappointed. The earliest believers didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus for a variety of reasons. One, the early believers focused their attention upon the death and resurrection of Jesus. Two, there is no biblical mandate setting off the observance of Jesus’ birth. Three, the cultural emphasis of the age was not upon an individual’s birth, but their death.

The earliest observation of the birth of Jesus was combined with the baptism of Jesus. The origin of the manifestations of Jesus, or The Epiphany,[3] is obscure but it predates the Churches observation of the birth of Jesus. Traditionally The Epiphany is observed on January 6th by the Orthodox and Armenian Churches.

When the later influence of the Western (Roman) Church encroached upon the Eastern Church, the birth of Jesus was separated into a separate feast, with The Epiphany continuing to commemorate the baptism of Jesus, but added the tradition of the visit of the Wise Men, and thus also known as The Three Kings Day.

Observation by the Western/Roman Church

A chief motivation for observing the birth of Jesus separate from The Epiphany is the influence of the Jewish tradition. By the fourth century the Western Church seemed determined to rid itself of any Jewish influences. Ironically, many of the traditions developed were a reaction to and the adaption of many Jewish observations.

Determining the Day of Jesus’ Birth

The Gospels do not record the date of Jesus’ birth. Although there appears to be evidence of either a spring or fall date, and more probably a fall date corresponding with the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, the 25th of December was established as the official date.

Some suggest that December 25th was determined by Constantine in 325 AD, while the more probable suggestion is the year 354 AD by Bishop Liberius. Liberius decided upon December 25th because it represents a convergence of several pagan winter holidays, especially the death and birth of the Sun at the winter solstice.

The decision upon that date was based upon a general “Christianization” of pagan observations, a decision that had unfortunate consequences. Rather than Christian virtues and practice having influence upon the pagan world, the subtle influences of paganism began to dominate the observation of Jesus’ birth.

The birth of Jesus eventually was observed with sensual excesses found in pagan observation. The abuses became so atrocious it led to an attitude that developed in the early reformation that shaped the course of the observation of Christmas.

The Influence of the Reformation

The excesses were so foreign to the ideals of Luther and other leaders of the Reformation they sought to ban any observation except worship on Sunday. John Calvin’s influence is remarkable. Rejecting all festivals as human institutions, Calvin led the Scotch General Assembly in 1575 to abolished the observation of “Yule Day" and enacted a civil penalty for anyone observing the day.

Even so, the sensual observation of Christmas once again began to dominate the cultural scene. The Puritans rejected Christmas in part to Calvin’s influence – it is not found in Scriptures, and in reaction to the English celebration with parties, feasting, drinking, and lewd behavior.

So strong was the Puritan influence upon American tradition, Christmas was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. On the first Christmas under the Constitution, Congress was in session December 25, 1789. Christmas did not become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

In the late 19th Century, Christmas became more favorable as many in England and America struggled. Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol cast an imagery of light, joy, and life against a backdrop of darkness, despair and death.

Eventually, in America, the themes of the Christmas Carol reinvented Christmas. The observation recaptured the religious themes, the benevolence, and a spirit of good cheer.

Christmas Today

The religious themes of Christmas are greatly overshadowed by the commercialization of Christmas. Today, any religious overtures are lambasted by secularist and pale to the pageantry of secular themes. Santa Claus has long lost his appeal to generosity and addressing the needs stressed by Saint Nicolas, a generous, gift-giving bishop living in the 4th century, to a corporate symbol of greed and cash flow.

Without Christmas many retailers would not survive. They depend on the materialism of Christmas rather than the life-giving Messiah that epitomizes the ultimate gift, the gift of God – the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. If there is any redeeming value of Christmas as practiced by so many, it is at least a time for families gathering together.

Redeeming the Season

Except for Church observations, little if any message of the first Christmas is left intact in western society. Jesus is paid lip-service and the themes found in Christian circles serve as symbols at best. Even so, keeping the religious significance of Christmas and the utilization of Christian symbols of Christmas are being challenged openly in public and often dimming the hope so important to the Christmas message.

Even the once popular “Jesus is the reason for the season” has lost its luster and now falls on deaf ears.

How Should Christians Respond?

Barring an economic meltdown or another Great Awakening, a secular version of Christmas is going to continue to run its course, often beginning in early September and includes post-holiday sales. For many retailers, Christmas is their salvation.

It is very easy to get caught up in the holiday frenzy that has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ. It is easy to focus upon the festivity and the gifts and the food at the expense of pausing and reflecting upon “the reason for the season.”

Reconnecting with the Message

Christians must reconnect with the message of Christmas, one that is found in the language of the Gospels.

It is found in the angel’s announcement to both Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds:

To Mary Gabriel proclaimed: “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 name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Luke 1:30-33

To Joseph Gabriel Proclaimed: “…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’” Matthew 1:20-23

To the Shepherds the Angel proclaimed: “Do not be afraid; for 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

Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son, who came to earth and through His life, death, and resurrection came the first time to bring salvation and redemption. As the Apostle Paul writes:

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Galatians 4:4-5

As the author of Hebrews reveals, He will come again:

…so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him. Hebrews 9:28

This Christmas Anthology as a collection of Christmas Messages drawn from the birth narratives of Jesus as found in the Gospels. Hopefully they will provide the reader with interesting, intriguing and sometimes provoking insights in the Gospel Accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord.

'' Merry Christmas! ''

[1] This is an introduction to a series of sermons developed from the Christmas Narrative found in the Gospels. [2] Written by Edward Pola and George Wyle, Columbia Records. [3] c. 361 AD.

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