The celebration of Christmas is indeed a special and joyous occasion for people, especially Christians, worldwide. Christmas, observed on December 25, is an annual celebration that holds great significance in the Christian calendar. It commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, the central figure of the Christian faith, and reflects on the event’s deep spiritual meaning. While the holiday is widely celebrated around the world, the true meaning and deeper aspects of Christmas often remain a mystery to many. This article aims to unravel the mysteries behind Christmas and draw valuable lessons for the contemporary Church. By exploring this celebration’s historical and spiritual dimensions, we can gain a deeper understanding of the profound impact Christmas holds for believers today.
THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS
Charles H. Spurgeon said, “the birth of Jesus Christ is the grandest light of history, the sun in the heavens of all time. It is the pole-star of human destiny, the hinge of chronology, the meeting place of the waters of the past and future. It conveys the idea that Jesus’ birth is a transformative event that shapes the course of time and serves as a guiding light for humanity. The association of Christmas celebrations with pagan festivals can be traced back to ancient times. Notably amongst these festivals were Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti by the Romans. According to Joseph F. Kelly in his book “The Origins of Christmas”, Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival that took place from December 17th to December 23rd, during the time of the winter solstice. It was dedicated to the god Saturn, who was associated with agriculture and abundance. Saturnalia was a time of great revelry and merriment, where social norms were temporarily suspended, and people engaged in feasting, drinking, and gambling. Slaves were allowed certain privileges during Saturnalia, such as being able to wear the clothing of their masters and being served by them. Gift-giving was an important part of Saturnalia, as small tokens of friendship and appreciation were exchanged among friends and family. The festival featured a public banquet, where people gathered to indulge in elaborate meals and delicacies. Romans also decorated their homes with greenery, such as holly and ivy, and lit candles to symbolise light amid darkness. Saturnalia was believed to bring good luck and fertility for the coming year, and it served as a way to honour Saturn and ensure the continuation of prosperous agriculture.
Also, the festival of Natalis Invicti, meaning the birth of the unconquered Sun, was a Roman festival celebrated on December 25th. It was dedicated to the sun god Sol Invictus, whom the Roman Emperor Aurelian popularised in the 3rd century CE. The festival was influenced by various solar deity cults and had similarities to other winter solstice celebrations in the ancient Mediterranean world. Although there is a debate regarding the exact origins of the festival, it is often associated with the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun after its shortest day. The festival marked the turning point of winter, when days began to lengthen, symbolising the triumph of light over darkness. Celebrations also included feasting, gift-giving, and lighting candles and bonfires to honour the sun god. The birth of Sol Invictus was viewed as a divine event, and it served as a reminder of the emperor’s divine authority and power.
THE MYSTERY OF CHRISTIANIZATION OF THE CELEBRATIONS
As Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, many pagan practices and traditions assimilated into Christmas celebrations, allowing for an easier transition and acceptance of the new Christian holiday.In an effort to Christianize the existing pagan festivals and appease the Roman population, the early Christian church decided to adopt and transform these celebrations into Christian ones.Pope Julius I officially declared December 25th as the birthdate of Jesus Christ in the 4th century, likely in an attempt to replace the Festival of Natalis Invicti (sun god) with a Christian holiday, that is, the celebration of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Many traditions associated with Saturnalia and the Festival of Natalis Invicti were incorporated into Christian Christmas festivities. For example, the gift-giving tradition was reinterpreted to symbolise the gifts brought by the Wise Men to the baby Jesus. The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and candles also became part of Christmas symbolism, representing eternal life and the light of Christ. Additionally, the focus shifted from pagan gods like Saturn and Sol Invictus to the birth of Jesus, marking the shift from a celebration of nature and worldly abundance to the birth of the Christian Savior. The Christian Church aimed to provide a familiar and acceptable framework for the celebration while infusing it with new religious meaning. The Christianization of the Roman Saturnalia and the Festival of Natalis Invicti helped the early Christian Church in its mission to spread Christianity and gain acceptance among the pagan population by repurposing and transforming existing celebrations into a Christian context.
LESSONS FOR THE CONTEMPORARY CHURCH
The Christmas season holds a significant place in the hearts and minds of Christians worldwide. Beyond the festivities and traditions, the celebration of Jesus’ birth offers valuable lessons applicable to the contemporary Church and believers. By embracing the lessons that emanate from Christmas celebrations, the Church can renew its commitment to its mission and inspire transformative change in its members and the world.
Firstly, Christmas reminds all believers of the ultimate expression of God’s love for humanity. According to Martin Luther King Jnr, ‘God doesn’t love us because of our worth, we are of worth because God loves us’. The birth of Jesus represents the divine plan to reconcile humanity to God through sacrificial love. The contemporary Church should recognise and reflect this profound example in its ministry. John 3:16 states, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son…’ By embodying the love of Christ, the Church can bring healing, hope, and reconciliation to a broken world.
Secondly, the Christmas story reminds the Church of the humble circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. In a lowly manger, surrounded by animals, the Savior of the world entered the scene. This lesson of humility calls the contemporary Church to reject pride and worldly power. The Church ought to serve humbly, seeking to lift the marginalised, proclaiming the good news of Christ without arrogance.
Furthermore, Christmas is a season marked by joy and celebration. The birth of Christ represents the fulfilment of God’s promises, and the arrival of the long-awaited promised Messiah. The contemporary Church can learn from this lesson of joy – to rejoice in the good news of salvation and to radiate hope to the world. In the face of challenges and hardships, the Church can be a beacon of joy, reminding humanity of the transformative power of Christ’s message.
Moreover, the Christmas narrative emphasises unity and reconciliation. The birth of Jesus Christ brought together people from different backgrounds. That is, the shepherds, the wise men, and the angels were all drawn together to worship the newborn King. This lesson of unity calls the contemporary Church to cultivate a spirit of inclusivity. Embracing diversity, the Church can witness the transformative power of Christ’s message by fostering unity and love among its members.
Also, the magi, who presented gifts to the infant Jesus, taught the Church the importance of generosity. Their act of giving reflects the heart of worship and devotion. In a consumer-driven world, the contemporary Church can learn from this lesson and prioritise generosity in its mission. An American writer, Washinton Irving, said, ‘Christmas is the season for rekindling the fire of hospitality’. By generously serving others, supporting the needy, and sharing resources, the Church can tangibly demonstrate Christ’s love to the world.
In addition, the Christmas story exhibits the faithfulness of individuals like Mary and Joseph, who obediently fulfilled God’s plan despite facing challenging circumstances. The contemporary Church can draw from its example and commit to its mission to preach the gospel and make disciples. In the face of an ever-changing world, the Church should remain steadfast, trusting in God’s promises and acting obediently.
Lastly, the Christmas season offers the Church an opportunity for reflection and renewal. During this time, the Church can reflect on the significance of Christ’s birth and its profound implications for humanity. It can renew its commitment to the core teachings of Christ, evaluating its practices and aligning them with the message of love, compassion, and justice.
The mystery behind the celebration of Christmas offers relevant lessons for the contemporary Church. By reflecting and applying these lessons, the Church can navigate the challenges of the holiday season, convey the valid message of Christmas, and impact the lives of believers and non-believers alike.Christians must not just be carried away by the fan and excitement that come with it but must seize the occasion to develop an intimate relationship with the indescribable gift of God to mankind. We must always bear in mind that Christ is the reason for the Season.
Written by Pastor Prince Augustine Ababio (Jema Nkwanta District, Kintampo)