Of God’s Spirit

Pastor David Rawley, Otterbein United Brethren in Christ Church
Each year at Christmas I hear some new objection to the Christmas “celebration”  that is based on an old argument.  Some of our cultural trappings have been folded into the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Therefore, we should reject it and downplay our whole festivity and idea of Christmas within the Christian community.  About the only “Christian” symbol is the star of Bethlehem.  Almost everything else is suspect and has its roots in a dim, dark idolatrous past.  The tree.  The lights. The candy cane.  The romanticizing of Saint Nicholas.  And the DAY.   Especially the Day, December 25.  Everyone knows that the pagans of the Middle Ages celebrated the feast of Saturnalia and the winter solstice and all the revelry and non Christian activity that was associated with the turn of the season toward spring.  Therefore, this argument goes, the churches and Christian community of today have simply put a Christian garment over a pagan corpse and we should not celebrate such nonsense.  We have simply “Christianized” idolatry and this is wrong.  We should be happy about the birth of Jesus, but we should not accommodate or adapt any of these features or symbols into the Christian community.

I disagree.  I believe it is a POWERFUL statement of the TRUTH of Christianity and the INCARNATION of God that cultural practices have been stripped of dark vestiges and transformed into something which can symbolize or celebrate the birth of the world’s Savior.  If I had lived in the ignorance and fear of the middle ages and the deep, dark winters of northern Europe, I would probably celebrated the Solstice also!  But how amazing that this cultural leaning toward something desirable was reframed by the message of the SON rather than simply the SUN.  It isn’t like a Committee sat down somewhere at some moment in history and said, “Now, we must get rid of idolatry and ignorance and we must promote Christ, but somehow we must still celebrate December 25 or somehow we must preserve the attachment that people have to the fir tree.”  No.  It was something which simply happened as the Christian message penetrated and as Christian people contemplated.  Gradually perhaps, but surely, the message fit into cultural containers and (in the process) shoved past associations aside.  Isn’t that the point and purpose of the Christian gospel?  Didn’t Jesus say, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”?  This is the story of the history of Christmas and culture, and it is one reason we should feel gloriously delighted to celebrate, using a tree, a day, or any other symbol which we wish to embrace.  Symbols have whatever meaning they are invested with.  If December 25 had a different meaning in the long lost past than it has today, so be it!  Many things have new images as culture changes around them.  People get excited about the beauty and majesty of a horse. Not long ago, people looked at horses simply as creatures of transportation and work.  Should we have no joy over seeing or petting or owning a beautiful horse simply because horses were formerly seen in a different light?   

Not only was Jesus born.  We have been born.  Of God’s Spirit.  “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth” (James 1:18).  “God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Peter 1:3).  Birth CHANGES things!  Your birth changed the world around you.  It changed your family.  It changed some associations and traditions for your family.  Duh!  It is something in which we should rejoice!  If the birth of Christ has “Christianized” some cultural symbols, we should rejoice about that!  I am glad for the winter solstice.  I think it is something to be happy about.  I realize it has been associated with non Christian activities.  But, I am even more deeply thrilled that the symbol itself has been reinvested with new meaning, the coming of God, the turning of the world into the season of the SON.  If you do not wish to say, “Merry Christmas” because of its universal and non Christian cultural association, it is alright that you use some other expression.  But if you say “Merry Christmas” meaning that you hope the joy of which the angels spoke to the shepherds is distributed to the hearts of people, then say it.  Mean it.  And be glad that Christ uses culture and the gospel is understood through human symbols.