A Brief History of Christmas

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We celebrate the birth of Christ, and we are able to do this because we have seen what His rule has accomplished in the world. Jesus told Thomas once that there was a blessing for those who would believe without having seen the risen Christ, as Thomas had (John 20:29). On this principle, our place in history gives us access to a greater blessing because we have not seen Christ with our eyes. But it goes the other way also. Those at the time of Christ had not yet seen what His rule would do in history (as we have). And so they are more greatly blessed looking toward the future—the same way that we will be blessed by looking forward to what Christ has yet to do (1 Cor. 2:9).

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Is. 9:6-7).

There are many lessons that can be drawn from a rich text like this, but our task this morning will be to consider just two of them. The first is the Christmas element—the fact that a child is born unto us, and that a son is given unto us (v. 6). The second has to do with this child’s relationship to what is here called “government.” We are told that this child was born in order to rule, for the government will be upon his shoulder. And the second thing we are told about His government is that it will continually increase (v. 7). He will bear the government upon His shoulder, and it will be a continually increasing government. This increase—unlike the growth of secular governments—will be a blessing, and not a pestilence.

The fact that Jesus was born into this world (unto us, it says) tells us that He is Lord of all things. He is the Lord of the earth. Further than this, after He rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, He was given rule and authority over all things in Heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18-20). And the fact that we are told that His government will steadily increase, without ever stopping, tells us that He is the Lord of time, the Lord of all history. He is Lord of the entire process. This includes those earlier times in the process when “the increase of His government” was not yet as obvious as it is now. This means that celebrations of His rule will contain corruptions that need to be weeded out. The kingdom grows gradually, and problems are addressed gradually. But patience is a virtue. Jesus is the Lord of it all.

The early church celebrated what we call Easter (and others, Pascha) right away. This included the weekly “Easter” of the Lord’s Day (Heb. 4:10; Rev. 1:10). One of the biggest controversies of the second century concerned how the date of this annual Easter was to be calculated. So the early church celebrated the Lord’s resurrection (His being firstborn from the dead) from the very beginning. They were a bit slower with celebrating His birth. But given the amount of space the gospel writers gave to accounts of His birth, it is not surprising that this celebration came eventually.

·    The birth of the Lord began to be commemorated (on an annual basis) somewhere in the third or fourth centuries, A.D.
·    It is commonly argued that this was a “takeover” of a pagan holiday, celebrating the winter solstice. But it just as likely, in my view, that this was actually the other way around. Sol Invictus was established as a holiday by Aurelian in 274 A.D., when the Christians were already a major force. So who was copying whom? And Saturnalia, another popular candidate for being an “ancestor” of Christmas, actually occurred on December 17.
·    St. Nicolas, who was later morphed into Santa Claus, was a godly man, known for his generosity to children. He attended the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), and at least one urban legend has him punching out Arius the heretic. Let us hope so.
·    In the medieval period, the holiday became known by its current name (Christmas) in the 11th century. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives us the first use, recording something that happened in 1038. A.D. An archbishop died, “and a little after, Ethelric, bishop in Sussex, and then before Christmas, Briteagus. Bishop in Worcestshire.” Some may object to the fact that the suffix -mass is still in the name. But the objectionable doctrine of transubstantiation was not codified by the Roman church until the 13th century (1215) at the Fourth Lateran Council. The word mass originally came from the fact that in the ancient church catechumens were dismissed from the service before the Lord’s Supper was observed. “Ite, missa est,” which roughly translated means that “you may go now.” We see it still in our word dismissed. The vestigial reference to the Mass in this name should not be a trouble; Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to celebrate Christmas at all, and they deny the deity of Christ.
·    By the time of the Reformation, the ship of the church was absolutely covered with barnacles—saints’ days and whatnot. The Reformers scraped virtually all of them off, keeping only what they called the “five evangelical feast days”—Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. All five are related to things that Jesus did, and we are not distracted by the Feast of St. Bartholomew’s Finger Bone.
·    Much of what we identify as “Christmas-y” is no more than a century or two old—our idea of a “traditional” Christmas is basically Victorian. This is not bad, although it can be bad if you are not paying attention to your heart, and wind up judging your neighbor. I refer to Christmas cards, snow, silver bells, electric lights for your house, and a Saturday Evening Post Santa with a Coke.

We expect the government of the Lord Jesus to grow, and this means that what we do will look quite different from what was done 500 or 1,000 years ago. We may hope that 500 years from now, it will be even more mature. In the meantime, we walk by faith in the one who is carrying all of human history on His shoulders—taking us home like an errant lamb.



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