Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Why do we celebrate Christmas?

In my "Introduction to the arts of worship" class, I had the opportunity to study liturgy and to appreciate why certain practices are adopted in the church. One major Christian celebration that had always pique my curiosity was "why do we celebrate Christmas?" I had heard of people claiming that it used to be a pagan event, so they argued that Christians should not partake in it. What's more, the shopping malls and commercials have popularized Christmas so much that there are hardly any traces of the significance Jesus' birth. Is Christmas a pagan invention? Are churches collaborating with the commercialized world in celebrating Christmas?

1) The early church's celebrations
The early church structured the Christian time in such a way that reflects the early community's values. Worshipping weekly on Sunday was the earlier testimonies of the early Christian communities as recorded in 1Cor 16:2, Acts 20:7,11, Rev 1:10. Extrabiblical records such as one written by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, dated A.D. 115, tells us the practice of keeping the Sabbath or the Lord's Day.

Apart from the Lord's Day, the most important event recorded by the early church was the Passover-Easter, or Pascha. "In the first three centuries, Christ's passion, death, and resurrection were commemorated together at the Pascha."[1] The second in importance was the celebration of the Day of Pentecost, which commemorated both the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit.
The third chief event dated as early as the fourth century was Epiphany. This event is closely related to our Christmas today. As Jesus was believed to be conceived on the same day when he died, i.e. April 6, the early church believed that his birth should fall on January 6. Epiphany signified the birth of Christ, to the Magi, to the baptism of Jesus, and Jesus' first miracle recorded in the Gospel of John. It was the day when God manifested to humans, and this day was also called "The Theophany" (manifestation of God). When did Christmas come in then?

2) Birth of Christmas
A Roman document from A.D.354 shows that Epiphany was split by the first half of the fourth century. It records a feast around A.D. 336, December 25 to commemorate the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Judea. "This date competed with a relatively new pagan festival of the Unconquered Sun as the sun begins to wax again at the winter solstice."[2] In the winter season, the daylight tends to get shorter and shorter in the Northern hemisphere until around December 25. This means that when the day starts to get longer during the winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it was commemorated by the pagans as the return of the "Unconquered Sun." The early Christians in Rome "baptized" that same day to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. There is certain sense of logic as Jesus' birth signifies new light and hope for the whole world, and Jesus is the true light, instead of any created being. The commemorations of the Epiphany were gradually brought forward to Christmas. But the Epiphany was not totally replaced. At its heart, Epiphany commemorates the day Jesus was baptized. The period from Christmas to Epiphany therefore has deep theological implication. This period signifies the birth of Jesus and the baptism of Jesus, and testifies to the whole purpose of incarnation: "the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ, beginning both with his birth and with the beginning of his ministry."[3] If I were to follow God's manifestation in Jesus Christ from his birth and ministry in chronological order, where would that lead me? Right to the Passover-Easter. So, by the end of the first four centuries, the early Christians not only have weekly worship service, they have Passover-Easter (and Lent), Pentecost, and Christmas-Epiphany (and predecessor of Advent), that distinctively mark the early Christian calendar. These events point to what God had done for us and continued to do through the Holy Spirit. "All we have to do is accept what God has done"[4] and be reminded that all these are God's gift that we cannot create but only accept. By accepting God's gift and celebrating through these various events, we are proclaiming "Jesus Christ until he comes again and to testify to the Holy Spirit indwelling the church in the meantime."[5]

3) Reflection on Christmas
As I ponder upon the significance of my new discoveries about Christmas, I also realized that I have unearthed new elements as well.

First, the shepherds who bore testimonies to Jesus' birth were regarded with high suspicion, and even despised, in the first century. "Because they were generally poor and nomadic, shepherds were feared as a kind of wandering, potentially criminal element in the land. To these, not to the noble of the elite, God sent heavenly messengers with good tidings."[6] Though I do not see shepherds around me today, I can imagine the trash collectors who poke into the rubbish bins for bottles and cans. They are nomadic and poor, and sometimes feared as potential criminals. I can imagine God revealing Godself to these people, instead of people whom I called highly civilized as they are highly respected in the society. God is sometimes revealed in unexpected places. Am I ready to be jerked out of my comfort zone in order to encounter God's reality?
Second, most of the time, when I celebrate Christmas in the church, I would witness the enactment of three wise men who visited Jesus, and a scene where they would report to King Herod. However, I have missed the fact that children under two years old in and around Bethlehem were killed by the government officials. A genocide was committed in order to protect King Herod's dynasty. As I imagined the grief and loss of the families, I could faintly hear the cries of the parents, especially the widows and the poor individuals; the agony and anguish of the whole town that Jesus was born in. As I celebrate Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, I have forgotten some people who are in their destitute now. There are people who have lost hopes and dreams, not because of their doings, but because of the ambition of those in authority and power. As I thank God for Jesus' birth, shouldn't I also pray for the people, whose destiny are just briefly mentioned on the newspaper front page or maybe found on some obscure web site and quickly forgotten? How about those people who had lost their entire life savings in the Lehman brothers' crash?

Third, when passing the candlelight during the Christmas celebration, other than the "good feeling" it conjured, it is supposed to signify that Christians are called to be light of the world. Whether it is basking in the splendor of the decoration along Orchard Road or the holiday mood generated by the twinkling Christmas tree, I am commemorating the birth of an immensely greater light and in fact the true light of the world. I ought to celebrate the birth of the true light and by celebrating the event, I am called to remember that we have hope (I used "we" because the nature of this hope is corporate, not individual). This hope is given by God though His incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. This hope is rooted in the past, continuing in the present, and carrying us forward to encounter the future, so this hope has an eschatological dimension. This hope is not to be meant to be saturated by the sign-values of the commercialized world, but to be proclaimed and lived out by every Christians around the globe. As I celebrate this hope in the presence of the Holy Spirit, I remember that because of this hope, I am called to be an imitator of Jesus Christ (1Cor 11:1, Eph 5:1).

May you have a blessed new year.

[1] James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 54.
[2] Ibid., 62.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 67.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 112.

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