I strung up our Christmas lights this past weekend. This was also the weekend when a grocery cashier asked me, “Are you ready for Christmas?” “It isn’t even December yet,” I replied and we both had a chuckle. But Christmas does seem to be coming earlier this year, and not because the Christmas displays have been going up since Hallowe’en; I think that, with all the stuff going on in our world this past twelvemonth, we can’t wait to celebrate something.
The dental hygienist I told you about a couple of weeks ago had been sharing about her doubts and “intellectual” critiques of the Bible and Christianity. One of her statements was the stock response to Christmas: “Well, you know, Christmas is really an ancient holiday that The Church used to make Christ acceptable to pagans.”
“Or,” I suggested, “I look at it as God reaching out to pagans with the message of Jesus, using whatever language they understand.”
And I believe that’s the case: the symbols associated with Christmas may have been co-opted from pagan religions, but it’s important to remember two things: (1) God will use any means possible to get His message to us; and (2) Who created the pagans? So let’s consider:
The Christmas Tree. This may have been some throwback to pagan rituals, but if you take a hard look at it, it’s the perfect metaphor for God and Jesus. It’s a tree — rooted in one spot, unmovable. It’s an evergreen tree — constant and verdant. It reaches up to heaven while its branches reach out to us, as God did when He sent Jesus. The tree provides protection for all creatures, without discrimination. And of course, the image of the tree foreshadows Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.
Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
— Luke 2:34-35
Christmas Day. There are some pea-pods who will point to historical evidence that Jesus was actually born in the Spring, and that the celebration of Christmas in December was established to distract pagans from celebrating the winter solstice.
OR … it gives new meaning to a pagan festival of the return of light to the world in the midst of the darkest time of the year. This is a chance to talk about the real light of the world. Once again, it’s an example of God, using language people can understand, to reach out to us.
Christmas Lights. Yule logs, candles and bonfires may have been part of pagan midwinter celebrations, but like Christmas Day in December, they symbolize of Jesus as the “Light [shining] in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (John 1:5)
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s one of those warm-fuzzy stories about someone who was bullied because he was “different” and then does something to bring his former detractors onside. Lovely. Except for one thing: the only reason “the reindeer loved him and shouted with glee” is because his deformity turned out to be “good for something”. If fog hadn’t socked-in the North Pole that night, they’d be taunting and bullying Rudolph to this day. “Being useful” is a utilitarian, very worldly, concept — and God and Jesus really don’t care how “useful” you are: you’re God’s child and Jesus’ brother or sister, no matter what.
Santa Claus. I think St. Nicholas himself would shudder at the personality cult that’s built up around him. My children used to ask, “Is Santa Claus real?”, and we’d say, “the spirit is real – the spirit of giving to others and blessing children”, but we’d try very hard to avoid connecting the fat guy in the red suit at the mall with anything resembling reality.
But Santa discriminates. The myth is that only good little girls and boys get presents for Christmas, and that is antithetical to Jesus’ message. For one thing, what does that tell the children of poor families, whose parents can’t afford many (or any) presents? Are poor children bad? But as with Rudolph, it’s also tantamount to preaching “salvation through works” and ignores the fact that God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice are for all of us, no matter what we’ve done in the past. God loves all of us, whether we do good things or bad things, and “gives liberally, to all and without reproach,” to anyone who asks (James 1:5)*.
The gift of Jesus Christ is invaluable and to all and for all. And that’s what we need to keep reminding people through this season.