This is an updated version of a post from this time last year, and there is a definite sense of déjà vu.
Once again, Christmas feels a bit different. Though we are not under strict lockdowns, and restrictions are limited in scope and impact, the rising daily chatter around new variants and NHS pressure all feels quite 2020. We are well in to Advent, Christmas is very nearly here. It might not look anything like we’d hoped or expected, but it will still be Christmas.
Perhaps you’re lining up carols services, buying presents, and decorating trees. You’ve made plans to see family and friends, to make up for cancelled Christmas trips last year. Yet while things certainly feel better than last year, things are still a bit different. Maybe travel plans have been scuppered, elderly or vulnerable relatives are unable to join you over the Christmas period, or the whole season is simple reshaped by the fact of someone who won’t be there, perhaps ever again. Or maybe you’re isolating and sick. However it might look for you, Christmas is coming. The complexity of the celebrations and the season bring both joy and sorrow, but the promise of the Saviour born remains unchanging, even when everything else seems different (and not always positively so.)
Whatever it will look like for you, Christmas will come around in just a few weeks, as it does every year, and many will be celebrating. Yet while the Early Church celebrated so much together: eating meals as a church family on a regular basis, commemorating the resurrection as the sure foundation of their faith, it seems that for the first three hundred years of Christian history, they didn’t celebrate Christmas.
Indeed, it’s only in 356 AD that we find the words “25th Dec, natus Christus in Betleem Judeae.” 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 simply not something marked with a special day of celebration.
Why December 25th?
Exactly why we celebrate Christ’s birth on the 25th of December 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 is in many ways compelling, 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 assimilate to the new religion. Similarly, the latter makes sense too, and aligns with some suggestions from medieval church writers.
Either way, we have little evidence to suggest that Christ was born on the 25th of December, and the Bible certainly gives no date or time. Suggestions that Mary conceived in Spring and so would have given birth in December are plausible, but again only speculation as to specific dates. Regardless of why the 25th was picked as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the most important thing to note was that it was. And so from the fourth century until now, each year, Christians take time to celebrate this birth of a baby boy to a scared, young couple 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. It’s painfully obvious, especially at the moment, that our world is not how it should be. Amidst the crises of pandemics, politics and so much more, it’s painfully obvious that we are not how we should be. We’ve seen so many great news stories of selflessness and charity this past year, but haven’t we seen so many too of selfish actions, pride, arrogance and cruelty? Even in such a troubled time we seem to cause even more 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? Two great ways you can do that: start by reading the historical account of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. You can read one of these, written by an early follower of Jesus named Luke, here. Another great way would be by going along to church this Christmas time. Speak to a Christian friend, I’m sure they’d love to have you come along to their church with you. If you don’t know any Christians, run a google search for ‘churches near me’ – or connect with a Christian near you here.
Another place where you can find out more is: Look For Hope. This website has articles and answers to some big questions, including a few that have arisen over the last few years in particular.