Rockin’ around the Saturnalia tree? Christmas in the Early Church.

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Wednesday is Christmas day. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been buying presents, going along to carol services, and decorating your tree. The prospect of a week off of work looms large and joyful, and time spent with family and friends fills you with joy/despair (delete as appropriate).

The Early Church celebrated many things together. They ate meals as church families regularly (far more than we do today), they celebrated the resurrection as the sure foundation of their faith. But for the first three hundred years of Church History, it doesn’t seem that they celebrated Christmas.

Indeed, it’s only in 356 that we find the words “25th Dec, natus Christus in Betleem Judae.” Quite literally, 25th December, Christ is born in Bethlehem, Judea. So for three hundred years, we have no record of the Church or any other Christian group celebrating Christmas. The death of Christ and of notable saints or historic Christian figures received much more attention than their birth, and at Epiphany celebrations on the 6th January the Church was more concerned with reflecting on Christ’s baptism than His birth. It seems that Christ’s birth was not something reflected with a special day of celebration.

Why December 25th?

Quite why we celebrate Christ’s birth on the 25th of December then remains a mystery. Some have posited that it super-ceded the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, others suggest that as the Catholic Church began to celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25th, his birth naturally falls nine months later.

The former seems more likely, and the 25th of December reflects not only the Roman festival in honour of Saturn but also the Persian festival to Mithra. These major festivals may naturally have become usurped by a growing Christian population in the Roman world, keen to encourage pagans to comfortably assimilate to the new religion.

Either way, it seems unlikely that Christ was born on the 25th December, and the Bible certainly gives no date or time. Regardless of quite why the 25th was picked as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the most important thing to not was that it was. And for hundreds of years, Christians have taken time to celebrate this birth, of a baby boy to a humble carpenter in Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago.

Why Celebrate at all?

Christians celebrate because this baby is special. When Mary became pregnant, the Lord said to her husband Joseph:

“She will give birth to a Son, and you shall give Him the name Jesus, because He has come to save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21 (NIV).

Jesus came to save. Jesus, this baby in a Manger, was born to save men and women across the world and throughout history, from themselves.

Because we all need it. Look at the world around us, look at our own hearts. So often the biggest problem we deal with is ourselves. We cause trouble for ourselves, we make foolish and unkind decisions. Our actions, words and thoughts can be dirty, cruel and selfish. And the Bible says that’s wrong. And we know in our hearts that it is.

The Bible also says that this wrongdoing, what the Bible calls sin, is punishable by death. That’s why death is the certainty we all face. But on Christmas day two thousand years ago, a baby was born to challenge that. A baby was born to die. When the wise men visited, they brought gifts fit for a king (gold) a god (frankincense) and a corpse (myrrh). Myrrh, an embalming oil for bodies in the tomb. Christ was born to face death. Not in the way we are, as an inevitable end to our lives, but to face it head on.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, by taking upon His perfect and divine shoulders, the punishment of death our sins deserve. And in its place, He gives us His goodness, His right standing with God, and we walk free. Not just in this life, but for all eternity. The baby in the manger came to bring hope to a world that seems so hopeless.

That’s why we celebrate Him. A baby born to die. A King born to save.

Maybe this Christmas you could meet this King for the first time? The links below are just to help you explore who He is, and think about why it is we celebrate Christmas quite so enthusiastically, every year.

https://www.ligonier.org/blog/real-meaning-christmas/

http://speaklife.org.uk/HeCameDown/

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1&version=NIV

Hoping for better? Elections, Christmas and Augustine.

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In the UK we’ve just had a General Election. It’s been our third in five years, and possibly one of the most bitterly fought and divisive campaigns of recent decades.

The result has been clear, and many are not happy with it. Many were hoping for something else, many were hoping for a change of government, or at least a change of leadership.

One of our politicians, the Lib Dem Leader Jo Swinson, had this to say as she gave a speech shortly after losing her own seat (and just before resigning as party leader.) “For millions of people in this country, these results will bring dread and dismay, and people are looking for hope.”

People are looking for hope.

Maybe people put their hope in our politicians this election campaign, and maybe millions were left disappointed. But Jo was certainly right about one thing. People are looking for hope.

Now the election is over, as a country our attention turns to Christmas. The somewhat incongruous placement of Santa outfits at polling stations or Christmas trees in TV studios throughout election day was a reminder that this election comes before the biggest holiday celebration of the year.

Christmas is a huge deal, and it has been for centuries. Today, for many, Christmas means gathering the family, getting a week off work, and eating and drinking too much. And Christmas is a season of hope. People wish one another good tidings, they speak of festive cheer, and they hope for so much. They hope they’ll find time to get the Christmas shopping done, they hope they’ll manage to survive the ordeal of the office Christmas party. And perhaps they hope for bigger things. They hope all the family will get on this year. They hope that that elderly or sick relative will be well enough to come. We put a lot of hope into Christmas.

We put a lot of hope in our politicians. We put a lot of hope into our Christmas plans. But it never quite seems to work out.

Politically, millions lost out on their preferred result, and as for Christmas? You never quite get the gift you want, the family always manage to mess something up, and there’s so often that inevitable reminder of someone absent who was celebrating along with you last year.

Hope can be awfully disappointing. Because we so often hope in the wrong things.

Politicians can promise hope for a better Britain, Christmas can spark hope for a happy holiday, but there’s only one hope that never lets us down.

Hope Has a Name.

True hope has a name. That name is Jesus.

Augustine wrote a short work entitled: The Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love. In it, he alluded to the hope that Christians have, and he argued why that hope was true hope. Augustine spoke of “the hope of future good”, a hope that “leads to eternal life.” But why was this true hope and how could one hope in it?

Augustine goes on.

For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves. For the man who loves aright no doubt believes and hopes aright; whereas the man who has not love believes in vain, even though his beliefs are true; and hopes in vain, even though the objects of his hope are a real part of true happiness; unless, indeed, he believes and hopes for this, that he may obtain by prayer the blessing of love.

Augustine, Handbook, 117.

Here, Augustine links hope with love. But not just any love. Loving right. Loving good. And Augustine knows where true love is found: in God.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 

1 John 4:7-8 (NIV)

We can love and we can be loved, because God is love. Love comes from God, it pours out of His very nature. And love, says Augustine, leads to hope. And the great hope of Christians, in the Early Church and today, is Christ.

Because Christ came to Earth out of love. The love of the Father for a broken and lost people. The love of the Father to bring His children home. The love of the Father to save hopeless people, and to fill them with a lasting hope in Himself.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NIV)

God SO loved. That He sent Jesus Christ. He sent His only Son, to live and die in our place. To bear the punishment our sinful lives deserved, and to offer us real and lasting hope. Hope of an eternal life with Him, hope of an eternal love with God’s family. Hope of a Father winning back His children for all eternity.

This Christmas, hope is not found in the family we gather round us, or the social faux pas we avoid. Hope is found in a baby, born 2000 years ago. Hope is found in the God of Augustine. Hope is found in Jesus Christ. Sent because God loved so much, that He couldn’t bear to leave us hopeless.

Put your hope in that. Put your hope in Him.

‘Systematic exploitation’ and the freedom of Christ.

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I recently watched the UnBelievable interview with Tom Holland and Tom Wright.

I enjoyed it immensely, and if you haven’t yet watched it, it’s a few years old but still an interesting conversation to listen in on.

One thing that stood out for me was the use of a particular phrase by the writer and historian Tom Holland. Holland claimed that the ancient world was built and sustained through the concept of what he called “systematic exploitation”.

Holland goes on… “the entire economy is founded on slave labour, the sexual economy is founded on the absolute right of free Roman males to have sex with anyone that they want anyway that they like. And, in almost every way, this is a world that is unspeakably cruel to our way of thinking.”

Holland’s comments reveal a cruel and oppressive nature in the ancient world, that, rightly, clashes with our own ways of looking at the world. This is not a blog post aimed at dissecting why it is we are so uncomfortable with such behaviour, though for a timeless book on such questions, I would recommend C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

The Oppression of Rome

Holland is speaking of Ancient Rome with these comments (he reflects them back to Greece as well – but his focus is the later ancient power). And the Rome he describes is the Rome in which Jesus lived and died, Paul wrote and travelled, and the Early Church was founded and grew. In the Italian peninsula alone, some studies suggest the slave population was around 3 million by 100 AD. Another study reckons between 5 and 6 million slaves empire wide by 260 AD. That’s nearly 15% of the entire imperial population, enslaved and oppressed.

Holland mentions the sexual oppression of the ancient world, and there was certainly a culture of manipulation and abuse in this regard. Prostitution, adultery and paedophilia were commonplace in the Roman world, some thought of as respectable, some regarded as crass. Little of it was considered wrong or evil.

The ancient world was built on the systematic oppression of the poor, vulnerable, alien and needy. Much of what went on in Ancient Rome ought to repulse us. But this was the everyday world of the Early Church. Before they became Christians, respectable men and women would have viewed sex completely differently, would have happily owned other people for the simple sake of household chores and business matters, and would have turned a blind eye to the brothels, slave markets and sexually licentious drinking parties that they both walked past and engaged in.

Christianity in Context

Such a context ought to shock us when we read passages like these of Paul…

“The body… is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.”

1 Corinthians 6:13-17 (NIV)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

Colossians 3:22-24 (NIV)

An open sexuality, prostitution and slavery were so commonplace in the ancient world. Let’s take these two cases in turn, because Paul has something to say about the oppression of Ancient Rome, and the way (and reason) Christians ought to respond to it.

Sexually: Christians must be different. Sex is God’s gift to mankind, to be wonderfully and joyfully embraced in marriage. Prostitution contorts this. It breaks this marriage bond, distorting God’s good gift into a broken thing. More than that, the Christian is now united not only with their spouse, but with Christ! The Christian is one with the Lord in Spirit. How could something so holy, pure and good be united with a prostitute? Paul is radical in this teaching. Prostitution isn’t a perfectly fine everyday occurrence, its a distortion of God’s pattern for relationships and the world, and the believer must flee from it. Paul speaks of the prostitute here too. Her body is united in sexual immorality. This is a concerned message. Prostitution, sexual licentiousness, it doesn’t just turn one person from a right view of and relationship with the Lord, it takes two. Paul is urging Christians to flee from this sexual oppression, for their own sake as well as the sake of those they would be oppressing.

Paul is just as radical with slavery. Elsewhere in Scripture, Paul urges masters to be kind to their slaves, forgiving them their errors and treating them justly. But here, Paul speaks to slaves themselves. Paul commands them to obey their masters, to work hard for them, as for the Lord. A radical teaching! It is not a command to flee their oppression, but rather to respond to it in gracious subservience. There is so much that could be said on these two passages, and both betray huge topics that must rightly be explored. But in Paul’s response, there is one unifying theme that stands starkly against the systematic exploitation of the Roman world in which he writes.

Freedom in Christ.

In the Roman world, freedom was a big deal. Paul repeatedly used his freedom as a Roman citizen as defence in Acts, and citizenship (as discussed in my earlier blog) was a big deal. But even such freedom came with the recognition that you were part of the Roman machine. You were subservient to the Emperor, the elites, the laws and cultural quirks of Rome. True freedom, taught the Early Church, is only found in Christ.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1 (NIV)

Christ has set the believer free. Free from sin, shame, oppression and evil. Free from serving and doing what is wrong. Free from the final and ultimate punishment that our broken and sinful hearts deserve. Christ has set us free to live for Him.

“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”

Galatians 5:13 (NIV)

“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom to cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”

1 Peter 2:16 (NIV)

The Christian in the Roman world, and the Christian today, is called to a wonderful freedom in Christ. But that freedom is a calling from a life of sinful slavery. So, urges Paul and Peter, don’t use your freedom to carry on as you were. Live different.

Paul urged men and women to live sexually pure lives, they are now free in Christ to pursue sex in its right place, in marriage. They are now free to show love to the oppressed by treating them lovingly, not abusively. And Paul commanded slaves to live humble, hardworking lives. Because they are free to do so. Free to honour their masters, submitting to them as though to the Lord, because they are free to live for Him. Knowing, as every Christian knows, that their freedom is eternal and far outlasts the cares and worries of this earth, no matter how great they may be.

The Roman world was built on a systematic oppression of minorities, the impoverished and the vulnerable. Christ’s Church is built of free men and women, of brothers and sisters born not of the same earthly parent, but won through the wondrous actions of Christ on the cross. The Roman world was never truly free. But in the Early Church, men and women were living truly free lives in the ancient world. Living different, living free.

Irenaeus of Lyons: Firm against Heresy.

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Irenaeus was a second century Bishop and theologian. Born c.125, Irenaeus heard the teaching of Polycarp (more on him can be found here), who in turn had heard the Apostle John teaching the Gospel. Irenaeus was converted as a young man, and after taking this defining and challenging decision to follow Christ in a hostile ancient world, Irenaeus ended up in Lyons.

The then bishop of the city, the local church leader Pothinus, sent the young Christian to Rome, where Irenaeus was on mission for the cause of the Gospel. During this time away from Lyons, a fierce persecution broke out, and Pothinus was among the many Christians in and around the city to be put to death.

The Lyons that Irenaeus returned to was a different town to the one he had left only a few years before. But shortly after his return in c.180, Irenaeus was made Bishop of the small surviving church there, and it is in this role he would remain till his death in c.202 AD.

Irenaeus is remembered as a teacher, writer and theologian, whose most famous work was his Refutation Of Heresies.

Irenaeus’ Refutation primarily challenged the heresy of Gnosticism.

The gnostics arose during the first century, and operated on the fringes of Christian and Jewish groups. They taught transcendence and enlightenment, not sin and salvation. The gnostic considered the way to salvation being a personal understanding of the supreme divine, a mysterious force that they taught superseded the Christian God. Christ, sin and repentance were all concepts discarded by the gnostic, instead their writings deal with spiritual forces, transcendence and wisdom. Such wisdom made them an elite sect, only the enlightened could access their spirituality, and understand the role their gods and powers played in the world

Clearly, these gnostics had moved far away from the Gospel, and rightly, Irenaeus challenged them on this.

Irenaeus rightly taught the wonderful Gospel message, that God so loved the world He had made, He sent His one and only Son to pay the penalty that fallen, sinful men and women deserved, so that we could know Him, and life afresh. And Irenaeus taught that this was a message for everyone. That it did not matter how clever or elite or rich you were. All you had to do was come to Christ in repentance. He refuted the elitist, transcendent claims of the gnostics, instead offering a Gospel that clung to Scripture, and rested wholly on who Christ is and what He had done.

Three Things Irenaeus Taught

In response to the Gnostics, Irenaeus wrote his Refutation. I just want to pull out three things he taught within it, very briefly.

Irenaeus emphasised the importance of the Local Church. He was perhaps the first writer to speak of the catholic church – the universal church to which all Christians are members. But Irenaeus recognised that the true importance for the Christian was the Local Church. Churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Lyons and Rome were all local congregations. Part of this wider body of the bride of Christ, but in themselves manifestations of that body in their local communities. He recognised this universal true church of believers, but saw that this wider church was seen in the local church. He wasn’t speaking of a Catholic Church, subservient to one particular figurehead, but instead a catholic church, Local Churches united in the Gospel the world over.

And this universality extended to the second point I want to draw out, Irenaeus urged his readers to recognise that the Gospel was for everyone. It was not the property of the intellectual or social elite, nor of the slaves and paupers. It was for everyone. Irenaeus contrasted the Gospel to Judaism. The latter preserved the purity of a single nation, but the former? Well “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28.) The Gospel is an appeal for all and to all. Jesus commanded His discples, go and make disciples of all nations! (Matthew 18:19) Go out with the Gospel said Irenaeus, and preach without reservation to all you meet.

Off the back of that: my final point. Irenaeus taught that the Gospel offer was a challenge. Christianity claimed the truth for all nations. But it claimed the truth. Not a truth, the Truth. Jesus said quite plainly. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6.) Irenaeus rallied against gnostics who taught that personal enlightenment could bring about divine peace and understanding. This simply isn’t the Gospel message.

Irenaeus reminded his readers that the Local Church held out a Gospel for all men, but not everyone would accept it. It necessitated a choice. An acceptance or rejection of the truth of Christ. A choice that each and every individual had to make, and still does today.