Does Christmas have a ‘True Meaning’?

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken December 17, 1995

Does Christmas have a ‘True Meaning’? Most of the stories we read and the movies we watch at Christmas teach us that Christmas has a ‘True Meaning’ which has been lost and forgotten, but which can be remembered and rediscovered within the space of a thirty-minute TV special.

Ebenezer Scrooge discovered the ‘True Meaning of Christmas’. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future come to Mr. Scrooge on Christmas Eve and teach him that the ‘True Meaning of Christmas’ is to give to others rather than keeping everything for himself.

George Bailey discovered the ‘True Meaning of Christmas’ in Ralph Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life! In answer to the prayers of his friends, and with a little help from an angel trying to earn his wings, George learns that the ‘True Meaning of Christmas’ is that he is needed and loved by his community.

Even the Grinch of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas discovered the ‘True Meaning of Christmas’. As he struggles to push his sleigh full of ribbons and tags, and boxes and bags, back up the mountain, he hears the little Whos down in Whoville welcoming Christmas morning in song. And then he puzzles and puzzles until he discovers that Christmas ‘doesn’t come from a store’, but ‘perhaps it means a little bit more.’

Now those are all valuable lessons to learn. Scrooge, Bailey, and the Grinch are, in their own way, noble characters. But the ‘True Meaning of Christmas’, as it is presented to us at Christmastime, rarely focuses on what the Bible teaches about the birth of Jesus Christ. (The best exception to that rule is the Peanuts Christmas Special, but that doesn’t seem to be on very much any more, maybe because it quotes so liberally from Luke Chapter Two.) Despite our best efforts to the contrary, Christmas tends to become a pagan ritual.

And that’s the way it has always been. As far as we know, the New Testament Christians did not celebrate Christmas. Neither did the Christians of the early church. In fact, many of the most reliable Early Church Fathers were positively opposed to the idea. Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine all opposed Christmas because it was scheduled to coincide with Roman celebrations for the sun God. Origen went so far as to assert that only the unregenerate would celebrate such a festival [Homilies on Leviticus, 8].

During the Reformation, John Calvin observed the same tendency of Christmas towards debauchery and secularism, and agreed with Jerome that it was altogether a bad idea.

What about the Puritans? When wrestling with a question like this one it’s always a good idea to see what they have to say about the matter. We saw last month that the Puritans recognized the value of regular Thanksgiving feasts. But not Christmas feasts. We look in vain in Puritan writings for pithy sayings or warm devotional reflections on the proper celebration of Christmas. The Puritan Parliament went so far as to ban the celebration of Christmas and forbid the sale of mince pies on December 25. Although they don’t refer to it directly, the Westminster Divines had Christmas very much in mind when they wrote that ‘Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued’ [Directory for the Publick Worship of God, ‘An Appendix, Touching Days and Places for Publick Worship’].

What Augustine, and Calvin, and the Puritans were worried about is exactly the problem that we face today: that Christmas has become an essentially pagan ritual. Even for Christians–we must admit–Christmas has become a pretty self-indulgent holiday. The spiritual content of the birth of Jesus Christ has been reduced to a few catchy slogans on the front of Christmas cards at your local Christian bookstore. Even much of the giving we do at Christmas is subject to the rebuke that Jesus gave to the Pharisees, when he noticed that they only invited people to dinner who were likely to invite them back. Don’t we do much the same thing when we give Christmas presents?

The case against Christmas should warn us not to allow Christmas to become a pagan ritual. But there is also a case to be made for Christmas. At the same time that we are avoiding becoming pagans, Christmas is an excellent time to invite our pagan friends to become Christians.

In one of his letters, C. S. Lewis recounts the time his brother ‘… heard a woman on a ’bus say, as the ’bus passed a church with a Crib [Manger] outside it, _‘Oh Lor’! They bring religion into everything. Look–they’re dragging it even into Christmas now!’ [C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady, 29 December, 1958, p. 80].

Well, as a matter of fact, we do bring religion into everything, even into matters where religion properly belongs, like Christmas. Because Christmas is rightfully intended to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, it is a perfect opportunity to talk about spiritual things. It is a time when people hear truly religious music, when they are more likely to show up at a church service, when they feel the pain of loneliness or family strife more keenly, and when they are reminded of the inability of material possessions to bring lasting joy.

Whether or not Christmas has a ‘True Meaning’, the Incarnation of the Son of God certainly does have a True Meaning, True with a capital ‘T’. The True Meaning of the Son of God becoming man is what we have been exploring together these Sunday evenings in our sermons from Philippians 2. It’s a True Meaning that has to do with the humiliation of the manger and the humiliation of the cross. It’s a True Meaning that has to do with genuine healing and lasting joy for every needy person who comes to Christ. If we choose to think about this True Meaning during what is called the Christmas season, that is well and good. And if we also choose to invite others to consider the True Meaning of the Incarnation at Christmas, then so much the better.

I want to read a poem for you, a poem entitled ‘The Advent’. It was written by Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, one time Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary, and a prince among scholars. As I read the poem, you will hear someone wrestling to understand the True Meaning of the Incarnation of the Son of God. And you will see that it is a True Meaning worth grasping, at Christmas or any other time of the year, for Scrooges and Grinches everywhere.

The Lord has come into His world!

‘Nay, nay that cannot be:

The world is full of noisomeness

And all iniquity;

The Lord–thrice holy is His name–

He cannot touch this thing of shame.’

The Lord has come into His world!

‘Ah, then, He comes in might,

The sword of fury in His hands,

With vengeance all bedight!

O wretched world! thine end draws near,

Prepare to meet thy God, in fear!’

The Lord has come into His world!

‘What! in that baby sweet?

That broken man, acquaint with grief?

Those bleeding hands and feet?

He is the Lord of all the earth,

How can He stoop to human birth?’

The Lord has come into His world!

‘A slaughtered Lamb I see,

A smoking altar, on which burns

A sacrifice for me!

He comes–He comes–O blessed day!–

He comes to take my sin away!’

[Four Hymns and Some Religious Verses, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1910].

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