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Thursday 21 December 2023

The Purpose of Christmas


Is Christmas pagan? What is the purpose of Christmas? In this message I answer these two questions. 

You can watch the video of this sermon here.


This morning I want us to again think intentionally about Christmas. I want to preface this message this morning with a disclaimer that the start of this message may seem to be anti-Christmas. But this is not my aim, I am a big fan of Christmas, and if you heard my sermon last week you will know why. The coming of Jesus as a small child upturned the Spiritual realm and signalled to the devil that his defeat was near. Also, getting together with family, and friends, celebrating, blessing each other with gifts, are also all wonderful things. So, my aim is not to bash Christmas, but to remind you again what the real purpose of Christmas is, or at least was originally. So, here’s what I am going to do this morning. I am going to give you a brief history of winter celebrations from well before Christianity, then I am going to talk about how Christmas came about and why it came about, and then I am going to show how this applies to us today, and how we should think come Christmas time.  

One of the tendencies of Christians is that we can become too insular, too inward thinking, and forget our true purpose in this world is to make disciples. Jesus designed his church to light the way to him, to show people the way of salvation, and what this looks like. God leaves us here because he wants us to bring glimpses of his kingdom justice into this world, to be his witnesses, and to work through us in creative ways to bring people to salvation. Christmas is part of this glorious tradition of mission. So, let’s look at the origins of Christmas and then we shall see how we can apply this knowledge this year, to be more missionally minded.

But first, let’s read our guiding passage this morning: Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 –

“19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

Just keep this passage in mind as we begin with a brief look at the history of Christmas.

A Brief History of Christmas - We often like to say that the first Christmas was when the magi found Jesus and worshipped him. I think this is legitimate, because they did gather to worship the Lord and celebrate his birth. But Christmas didn’t become an official Christian celebration or holiday until about the fourth century AD. It was celebrated before this, but not officially. In fact, the gospel of Mark, often considered the first gospel written, does not even mention the birth of Christ, though the other three do. Can you guess the major festival Christians did celebrate? (Easter).

This isn’t surprising as Jesus’ death and resurrection are at the centre of our faith. Indeed, the Easter celebration for Christians replaced the Passover, and the early Christians referred to the celebration as Pascha, which means Passover in Greek, because Jesus is the true Passover lamb. So where does Christmas originate?

Winter Solstice – for as long as we know into pre-history and history the various pagan peoples of Europe celebrated the winter solstice. This is the shortest day of the year. ‘Solstice’ means ‘the sun stands still’.

The reason people were so keen to party at this time of year is, 1) They were celebrating the fact that the ‘sun was returning to full strength’. The days would get longer, and it would get warmer. 2) In Northern Europe this time of year is very bleak, crops don’t grow, you’ve slaughtered your meat for winter, so drinking, feasting, and partying was a way to slog through the shortest, darkest days of the year (if you have been to Europe in Winter you will know what I mean).

In Scandinavia one tradition at this time of year was to take a massive log, usually a cut down tree, and from the Winter Solstice (Around December 21st) they would burn it, they would feast and party until it was fully burnt. It usually took 12 days to completely burn up. Hence the idea of the 12 days of Christmas and the yule log.

People would decorate their homes, and even bring inside trees and plants to make them look nicer in the bleak winter.

In Germany, people honoured the pagan God Odin (the father of Thor), who was said to fly about the sky at night during the Winter Solstice and observe his people’s behaviour. He had white hair, and a long white beard. He knew when you were sleeping, he knew when you were awake. He knew if you’d been good or bad…He was even said to put toys into children’s stockings, left by the chimneys.  

Yule, or Yuletide, or the Winter Solstice stretches back in history as far as we know these Northern European peoples existed.  

Saturnalia – Further south, where it is warmer and the sun more prominent in winter, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, which was the celebration of the Birth of the unconquerable Sun God Mithra. It finished on the 25th of December.

This festival included drinking, singing door to door merry songs, sometimes naked, eating human-shaped biscuits, and the servants would become masters for the period of the festival, among other things. So where does Christmas come in?

Christmas begins – Our first known mention of Christmas feast is in 360 AD in the city of Rome. It became an official Christian holiday later in the fourth century. It was instituted by Pope Julius 1, who established the date of the 25th of December. So why did they start celebrating Christmas at the same time of year as this pagan holiday? Well it was all about discipleship.

Remember Jesus said that we are to make disciples of all nations, Matthew 28:19-20 – “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is what the fourth century Church was seeking to do, it was seeking to make disciples of all the people’s in the Roman Empire. In fact, they were seeking to teach two groups about Jesus:

Firstly, at about this time there were many heretics in the church who did not believe Jesus was really a flesh and blood human being, as well as God. What better way to teach these errant Christians that Jesus was fully human and divine, than celebrating his miraculous birth.

So, one of the purposes of Christmas was to teach Christians proper belief about Jesus. Now very few, if any Christians, don’t know Jesus was God and man, and Christmas helped this. Every year we celebrate God becoming a man, born of a virgin, in a small human village.   

But it also aided in bringing ancient pagans into the church. As we know the ancient Romans liked to party, they loved their holidays, and instead of asking them to give up everything they loved, the early church took their holidays and rebranded them.  

Instead of celebrating the Sun God, they were taught to worship the true Son of God. Instead of singing pagan songs, they taught the pagans to sing Christian ones. It actually took some time for the behaviour of the pagans to change, but eventually the Christmas celebrations became all about Jesus, and what he commanded.

By medieval times Paganism was virtually gone from much of Europe, though some of it was incorporated in what would become the Roman Catholic Church.

As Christianity spread out over Europe, and encountered the various Germanic peoples, which includes all the peoples we think of as English, French, German, Dutch, Austrian, Scandinavian, Norwegian, etc, they encountered their Winter celebrations, and again brought them into the church, and gave them new meaning and significance.  

The Germanic peoples loved to decorate their homes with foliage in winter, hence the origins of the Christmas tree and Christmas wreaths. We now decorate it with Christians symbols.

Their Germanic ideas of Odin, were replaced with Saint Nicholas of Myra, the generous, kind hearted Christian bishop, who defended the weak, and wasn’t afraid to punch heretics. This began the seeds of the modern Santa Claus.

It must be stressed that Saint Nicholas was a person who honoured God in word and deed. He looked after the poor and oppressed, and he was a staunch defender of Orthodox Christianity. He was also highly respected among the church. He represented orthodox Christian belief, which Christmas does as well.

Old Saint Nick would be horrified to find out that he had replaced Jesus as the central figure of Christmas. In fact, there is an ancient legend that he slapped the heretic, Arius, once at the council of Nicea because he did not believe the man was giving Jesus his rightful respect and honour. It is said they threw him in jail over that. Whether the legend is true or not, St Nick would not be happy to know that for many people he has replaced Jesus.  

These ancient Christians kept the feasting, the drinking, the gift giving, and all the other celebratory functions, but taught the pagans about Jesus, the saviour who was born of a virgin, who came to achieve their salvation from their false gods, to believe in the true God.

In other words, the early church was seeking to obey Jesus in making disciples of the nations, and they were following Paul’s example of being all things to all people in order that we may save some. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 –

“19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

Christmas is an example of the early church seeking to be all things to all people in order to save some. It is an example of the church thinking creatively about how to make disciples, thinking about how it could bring more people into the church, and therefore more people to faith in Jesus. The true purpose of Christmas was to make disciples, and it was very effective in doing this.

World’s Culture vs Jesus Christ’s Culture – But sadly, Christmas today has become again more of a pagan holiday, than a Christian one. Over the last 80 years or so the progressive de-Christification of Christmas has been happening at a consistent rate.

Starting with heaps of Christmas carols which turned the focus away from Jesus towards the rituals and outwards shells of Christmas (white snow, silverbells, reindeer, Rudolph and Santa, presents and more). Followed by movie, after movie, that has de-emphasized the Christian elements of Christmas more and more. Combined with marketing that hammers on about Santa Claus and buying expensive gifts. It’s very obvious what is happening.

We are living in a time where paganism is seeking to reclaim Christmas again for itself. Babylon is reasserting itself. Now why is this important?

Because as Christians we know for certain that at the centre of paganism is this important fact: it can only offer people bondage. Paganism is designed to turn us away from the creator towards created things: Romans 1:21-23 says this:

“21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”

In other word’s Paul says decline happens, because people became focused on “things” instead of the creator of those things. It’s not a coincidence that as Christ is removed more from Christmas, that it becomes more about things, and more about spending, spending, spending, which traps people in a materialistic cycle of debt.

By subversive Christmas carols, and Christmas movies that direct people to things rather than Jesus Christ, Christmas has become one of the main drivers of pushing people to something Jesus wanted to save them from: the love of things. It’s an inversion, and a sad irony.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying we can’t like these carols, or watch those movies. Just don’t fall under their spell and forget what Christmas is really about, and don’t be afraid to reassert the true meaning of “Christ’s mass”.  

The message of modern Christmas is indebt yourself to impress with gifts. The message of the real Christmas is: Jesus offers us a “free gift” (Rom. 6:23) that pays off our debts, the debts we owed God. Could you get a more wicked inversion than the one in which we now live?

I think we need to be shedding ourselves of the pagan inversions of Christmas as much as possible. John said this, “4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues…” (Rev. 18:4). The world system is very clever at getting us to not only participate in it, but celebrate it, and perpetuate it.

The more pagan our culture becomes, the more in bondage people are going to get. The less things like Christmas will be a celebration and the more they will become a burden on people, and the more people will begin to start looking for true hope, a hope beyond possessions.

If we are intentional about making Christmas about Jesus first and foremost, rather than the message of the world, the more we remove ourselves from Babylon’s ways, the more we will stand out from our culture and be an attractive light to those who want freedom from the world’s ways.

This was one of the reasons why Christmas was so powerful in the first place, because it was centred around the message of the free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. There’s nothing wrong with giving and getting gifts and singing about reindeer and snow at Christmas (as silly as that is for us Aussies, but ‘Let it Snow’ is my favourite secular carol for one reason: it’s the song at the beginning and end of Diehard) but the fact that this has become the main thing for many people is what is wrong.   

Think Missionally This Year – My encouragement to you this Christmas, is to think first, not about gifts, nor about feasts, though all these things are good things. Think first this Christmas about how you can teach people about Jesus, whether your family, your friends, your neighbours, or your work colleagues. Think Missionally this year about how you can teach people about Jesus through what you say and what you do, in word and in deed. Invite them church over Christmas, to Christmas Eve service, and let’s show them a bunch of people who have a hope better than any material gift could ever give us.  

Invite people to the Christmas carol event on Christmas Eve. If they don’t want to come to church, maybe at the family lunch read from the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew or Luke. Be creative in bringing back Christian tradition into your celebrations. Maybe you can buy people a gift that points them to Jesus.

Also seek to show that Christmas is not about things for you, but about more. So many people focus on what they do, or do not get at Christmas. Be that different person who cares more about presence, than presents.

Look out for those in your life who are lonely and include them in your family events. If you are lonely find someone else who you can celebrate with.

Look for creative ways to engage people this year, to teach them about Jesus, and model to them the freedom that Jesus offers us, freedom from the world’s way of doing things.

Conclusion – The true purpose of Christmas is gospel mission, let’s do that this year. If we want to truly celebrate Christmas as it was intended we must seek to worship Jesus for who he is and what he has done, and also teach others about him, especially the unsaved. Jesus came to die, and rise again, and in doing so achieved our salvation. Peace and goodwill to all men, comes through trusting in him. Tell people about Jesus this year. Let’s pray.

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