Christmas

In the Mosaic Law God gave instructions for certain feasts which the people were to celebrate throughout the year. These included the Feast of the Passover and the ensuing Feast of Unleavened Bread (both of which were to commemorate the people?s exodus from Egypt), as well as the Feast of Pentecost (described as the ?Feast of Weeks? in the Old Testament), the Feast of Thanksgiving for the wheat harvest, and the Feast of the Tabernacles­­ (which on one hand commemorated God?s protection of the people of Israel during their forty-year journey through the desert, and on the other hand celebrated the conclusion of the grape harvest and constituted an expression of thanks for the entire harvest). Over the course of the centuries the Israelites added further holidays that were associated with special events in the history of Israel.

The Lord Jesus was also familiar with these Jewish feasts from childhood on. We read that his parents took Him along to the Feast of the Passover in Jerusalem when He was twelve years old (cf. Luke 2: 41-43). On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles the Lord Jesus taught in the temple (cf. John 7: 2, 14). From the detailed accounts in the gospels we know that Jesus upheld the Jewish practices and traditions with which the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were celebrated: together with the apostles He ate the Passover lamb with unleavened bread, drank wine with them, and then sang a hymn together with them (cf. Matthew 26: 17-30; Mark 14: 12-26; Luke 22: 1-20). In no passage of the Bible do we ever read that He expressed anything negative about the celebration of these feasts.

Other nations have their own celebrations just like the Jewish nation. Every country probably has a national holiday associated with certain events in its history. The date on which this holiday is celebrated is a matter for the individual governments to decide. Often these are political decisions, for example, the day on which a country gained its independence, or in which several states joined together into one confederacy.

But how did the Christian holidays come into being? To begin with, the gathering of the Christians on the first day of the week eventually caused the Sunday to become a holy day, as this was the day on which Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead. Over time, Christians also began to feel the need to commemorate the special events of Jesus? life on certain days. The fixing of the various dates was not only based on the actual events, but in many cases was also oriented around the customary holidays in the various countries. With the spread of Christianity, the faith also found its way into non-Jewish cultural circles. Given this background, it is understandable that these days of commemoration were not uniformly celebrated in the early Christian congregations.

History of the celebration of Christmas

It is no different with the celebration of Christmas. The day on which Jesus was born into the flesh is not known. Ancient sources refer to the days surrounding 20 May. In the Eastern Empire, the ?Feast of the appearing of the Lord? (= Epiphany, which later received an entirely different connotation) was fixed as 6 January, while in Rome it was eventually fixed as 25 December. The oldest clue as to this date is found in an entry of the chronicler Filocalus, who on 25 December of the year 354 wrote: ?natus Christus in Betleem iudeae?. There have been many disputes over this date. Because 25 December was already a holiday commemorating the Roman emperor, who had long been held a god, many Christians rejected this date. In addition, this date was one of the 12 holy nights of the winter solstice in the old Germanic religions. Incidentally, the German name for Christmas (Weihnachten) is derived from this celebration (originally ?ze wîhen nahten?).

The debates as to which date would be the most suitable are of no great significance. We simply celebrate Christmas on the day that general Christianity recognises.

Custom

While the heathens celebrated their feasts, the Christians commemorated their Lord. Thus they celebrated the Christian celebrations - among them Christmas - in a heathen environment. As a result, heathen customs often became associated with Christian holidays. Many of these customs have persisted to this day. In the various countries and cultures they often diverge sharply from one another.

The custom of putting up a festively decorated tree and exchanging gifts at Christmas is widespread. Special foods are also associated with Christmas. For example, in Great Britain and a number of former British colonies, people eat plum pudding at Christmas. Likewise, the tradition of preparing a turkey for Christmas dinner originated in America. There can be no objection to such customs. It is up to the individual to decide on his own format for Christmas. However there is one thing that remains very important: the external elements of Christmas must never overshadow the actual meaning of the celebration! We must always remember first and foremost that Christmas is a feast dedicated to the birth of the Redeemer. For this reason we keep it holy by gratefully commemorating the events of long ago, by remaining completely conscious of the significance of this celebration and the hope associated with it, and by grasping its blessings, particularly through fellowship with the congregation in the divine service.

Promises were fulfilled when the time was right

Now let us take a look at the events of Christmas. One day, God sent the angel Gabriel into the Galilean city of Nazareth to visit the Virgin Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, a man descended from the lineage of David. Gabriel greeted the girl and said to her: "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end". Mary asked the angel: "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" The angel responded with the words: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God" (cf. Luke 1: 26?35).

God had sent an angel to proclaim a sheer impossibility: a virgin was to become pregnant without the aid of a man, exclusively through the power of the Holy Spirit! Gabriel went on to explain: "For with God nothing will be impossible". Thereupon Mary replied: "Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word" (cf. Luke 1: 37, 38). Humbly she subjected herself to the will of God. What faith was expressed in the simple words of this girl!

The fact that the Son of God was conceived without the aid of a man can also be seen as the fulfilment of God's promise that a descendant of the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent (cf. Genesis 3: 15). This is very unusual, since the Bible otherwise always refers to the lineage of the man.

Faith was required not only of Mary, but also of Joseph. When he noticed that Mary was pregnant, he secretly planned to leave her. But then an angel appeared to him in a dream and said: "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins". Then Joseph took Mary to himself and "did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus" (cf. Matthew 1: 18-25).

The prophecy of the prophet Isaiah was thus fulfilled with the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7: 14; cf. Matthew 1: 23).

What an unfathomable miracle!

Another prophecy that was fulfilled at Christmas was Micah?s indication of the birthplace of the coming Messiah: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting" (Micah 5: 2). In order that this prophecy could come to fulfilment, God used the Roman emperor Augustus as a tool to ensure that Jesus would not be born in the city of Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph lived. The emperor decided to take a census, which meant that every inhabitant of Judea would have to travel to the city of his ancestors. It was for this reason that Joseph also had to make his way to Bethlehem, along with Mary, who was in the advanced stages of her pregnancy. There Mary "brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn" (cf. Luke 2: 1-7). Thus God had - through the decree of the emperor, which had been given at exactly the right point in time - ensured that His promise would be fulfilled.

In his account of the events of Christmas, Apostle Paul very aptly writes: "But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Galatians 4: 4, 5). With these simple words he described the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ and stated the reason for which God's Son had taken on flesh: in order to bring about redemption and give human beings the opportunity to become children of God. Through Jesus Christ, God in His love for mankind made it possible for us to receive the childhood in God: "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God"! (1 John 3: 1).

In sending His Son, God revealed His infinitely great love toward us: "In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him" (1 John 4: 9). This love was so great that Christ abased Himself, giving up His glory and divine form to take on the humble form of a servant. Christmas - indeed an expression of the love of both the Father and the Son!

The day of Jesus' birth was one of tremendous joy, which brought divine peace to mankind and heralded the coming reign of Christ. During the night of Jesus? birth, shepherds were tending their flocks in the fields around Bethlehem. Suddenly the angel of God stepped into their midst and the glory of the Lord shone all around them. The shepherds, who had no idea what was happening, were afraid. Then the angel said to them: "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger". Then we read: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men'"! Then the angels made their way back into heaven. But the shepherds went to Bethlehem, where they found everything to be exactly as the angel had told them. After the shepherds had told Mary and Joseph of the events in the fields, they "returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them" (cf. Luke 2: 8?20).

The birth of the Son of God did not remain hidden from the heathens either. In the Orient, some wise men had seen a special configuration in the skies, which led them to conclude that a new king had been born to the Jews. In Jerusalem they inquired of King Herod as to where they might find the new king. Because of the previously mentioned words recorded in Micah 5: 2, the scribes were able to deduce that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. So it was that Herod sent the wise men there with the treacherous request: "Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also". In reality, however, he planned to murder the child so that He would not compromise his reign. The wise men continued following the star, which "went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (cf. Matthew 2: 1?11).

However, God appeared to the wise men in a dream, commanding them not to return to Herod, and so they took another route back to their country. Through an angel, God then told Joseph that he and Mary were to take the Child and flee to Egypt and stay there because Herod planned to kill Him. Joseph obeyed and remained in Egypt with his family until Herod died in the 4th year before the start of our calendar. From this we can conclude that our calendar is not based on the actual year of Christ's birth. Today it is assumed that Christ was born in the year 7 BC.

When the king realised that the wise men were not planning to return to him, he had all children up to the age of two - in Bethlehem and its environs - put to death. Even in this connection, the Evangelist Matthew saw the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy (cf. Matthew 2: 15, 17, 18).

Hope from the story of Christmas

Many kinds of divine promises were fulfilled at the birth of Jesus. For this reason we do not merely regard Christmas as a celebration marked by reflection or tradition. Instead, it is a confirmation that God always fulfils that which He has promised. This strengthens our conviction of faith that the promises associated with the second coming of Christ will also be fulfilled soon.

Just as the birth of Christ by a virgin appears impossible to human understanding, so too is the imminent miracle of the rapture of the bride of Christ. But here too, the words apply: "For with God nothing will be impossible"! When Jesus Christ returns, He will no longer abase Himself by taking on human form. Instead He will make those who have accepted His offer of salvation like Him through the transformation. That moment will be the greatest moment of bliss for God's children. Then the last promise recorded in the Bible will also be fulfilled: "He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming quickly'" (Revelation 22: 20).