Christmas: A Pagan Festival?
Last week’s blog post mentioned that the Advent season was not practiced by the church until well into the 4th century and that the date of Christ’s birth is impossible to identify with sufficient accuracy. Paul didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus. Peter didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus. The question that comes to mind, then, is why celebrate Christmas today?
For over 200 years no Christian celebrated the birth of Jesus! In fact, Christmas was assigned to December 25 to coincide with an already existing pagan holiday in Rome -- the Feast of the Unconquerable Sun (note sun not son). So, once again, why celebrate Christmas if it has this history intertwined with pagan culture?
We celebrate Christmas because God is able to redeem even a pagan culture. These pagan holidays and festivals were how the Romans oriented their lives each year. When Rome adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire, they needed to transform or redeem the calendar. So, instead of worshipping the sun (the deified sun was worshiped for coming back to bring life after winter), the empire now needed a reminder to worship the Son -- the one who brings true life.
Our lives will be oriented around various calendars and events throughout the year. The question for us to ask is this: what will those events be? and what purpose will they serve in our lives?
The general school year, summer break, spring break, Thanksgiving, President’s Day, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, the Super Bowl, Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter. These are some of the major elements of our cultural calendar. Just as the Romans redeemed the Festival of the Unconquerable Sun and made it an opportunity to put the majesty of Christ on display, so we too are now afforded the opportunity to take the highly materialized, mythologized cultural “Christmas” and redeem it in order to put the majesty of Christ on display.
The eternal God took on human flesh. To celebrate this and remember this for four weeks out of every year of our lives is to begin to orient our lives around God’s calendar instead of the culture around us. If we remind ourselves every Advent about the amazing truth of Immanuel, God with us, we will begin to experience Immanuel throughout the year and not just at Christmas.
May we spend the next several weeks pondering this mystery, repenting of our unbelief and apathy, and praising Jesus for the love he has shown us by stooping down from heaven to dwell amongst us. May Advent become a four week period every year that we order the rhythms of our lives around.