WHERE DOES CHRISTMAS COME FROM?
By Pastor Glenn Pease
An aviator trainer told of how he would take students up in a plane, and deliberately fly in all directions to confuse them. Then he would turn the controls over to the student and say, "Now take us home." It was the job of the student to learn how to find the radar beam, and stay on it until they were back at home base. The birds and fish have their homing instinct built in, but man needs to have outside help to get home.
Paul is helping the Galatian Christians develop their homing instinct. He wants them to get back to the place where they can feel they are really a part of the family of God. They are confused by the legalist, and feel disoriented and uncertain about their relation to God and the law. Paul helps them get back to home base, and to their freedom in Christ, by following the beam God sent into the world on that first Christmas.
Follow this light, and you will know where Christmas comes from, and it will take you home. For where it comes from is where you want to be. This is not a mere seasonal question. It is a supreme question for all time-where does Christmas come from? The answer can guide us through confusion and uncertainty back to home base, in the very heart of God. In this passage, Paul indicates that Christmas comes from three sources. First of all-
I. CHRISTMAS COMES FROM HEAVEN.
In verse 4, Paul says, "When the time had fully come God sent forth His Son." The God of the Bible is a God of action. He gets involved in history to achieve goals for man, and to develop relationships with man. He is not like Aristotle's God-The Unmoved Mover, who is so perfected that he needs nothing, and so he does nothing. The God of the Bible does have needs. He needs to redeem man and restore him to the family of God, because He is love, and love cannot remain unmoved. The forces of darkness have enslaved man, and love demands that they be set free.
Christmas comes from heaven, because God cares about what happens on earth. He sent His Son to bring light into earth's darkness. As American Christians, who enjoy both political and spiritual freedom, it is hard for us to appreciate the liberating light that God sent in Jesus. We have the light and the liberty, and, therefore, we take it for granted. That has not been the case with all Christians in the 20th century. Hans Lilje, the evangelical pastor who resisted Hitler, and ended up in a concentration camp, tells of his experience in his book, The Valley Of The Shadow.
"Christmas was near. Christmas Eve in prison is
so terrible because of wave of sentimentality passes
through the gloomy building. Everyone thinks of
his own loved ones, for whom he is longing; everyone
suffers because he doesn't know how he will be celebrating
the Festival of Divine and Human Love. Recollections of
childhood comes surging back, almost overwhelming some,
especially those who are condemned to death, and who
cannot help looking back at their past lives. It is no
accident that in prison suicide attempts are particularly
numerous on this special day; in our case, however, the
most remarkable thing was the sentimental softness which
came over our guards. Most of these S. S. men were
young fellows, who were usually unnecessarily brutal in
their behavior, but when Christmas Eve came we hardly
knew them--the spirit of this evening made such a deep
impression upon them."
He goes on to tell of the camp Commandant, who allowed a few of the prisoners to get together and sing on Christmas Eve. They were in bondage to the forces of evil, but they could see that even those who kept them imprisoned, knew it was wrong and contrary to the spirit of Christ. They could see the light of heaven penetrating even the Nazi darkness. Lilje wrote, "Upon us shines the Eternal Light, filling the world with radiance bright." Their very darkness made them see, more clearly, the light they had received from heaven, in the gift God gave at Christmas.
Helmut Gollwitzer was another Christian leader who spent Christmas in prison, during World War II. He was a German held captive in Russia. In his book, Unwilling Journey, he writes of planning to celebrate Christmas in a setting deprived of all that makes life worth living-
"The Russian camp leader had given his permission, but some
of the prisoners objected loudly and even begged me to forgo
every reminder of Christmas; "Only by not thinking about it--
that's the only way I can endure it; if you celebrate I shan't be
able to stand it and I shall hang myself...."
He did not hang himself; not because at the decisive moment
he was to cowardly but because he had seen the Christmas
Light which shines in the darkness. Not "not to think about it",
but rather to think about it with all one's might--that was the
lesson that Christmas Eve taught us. But what exactly were
we to think about? To immerse oneself in that dream could
not of itself bring salvation. Homesickness filled our hearts too
bitterly in those days. But when we heard the Christmas Gospel
and discussed it, a miraculous light seemed to have been
turned on; "God hath not forgotten those who sat in darkness."
On earth there was no power that could or would help us.
Surrounded by vast forests, we were forgotten and abandoned.
We hardly dared to hope that things would ever be different,
and yet we could not stop hoping. Was it that someone was
thinking of us and knew about us, someone stronger even than
Stalin and the N. K. V. D.?"
Here were men who knew that Christmas came from heaven, because there was no other source of light and hope, strong enough to overcome earth's darkness.
In 1944, Corrie Ten Boom spent Christmas in the Nazi prison camp, Ravensbruck. She tells of unbelievable darkness. Christmas trees were set up between the barracks. The bodies of dead prisoners were thrown under them. She tried to talk to others about Christmas, but they mocked and sneered. One feeble minded woman was crying for her momma in the night, and Corrie was able to comfort her. She told her about Jesus, the only light that could penetrate that darkness. The woman did pray to receive Christ, and Corrie writes, "then I knew why I had to spend this Christmas in Ravensbruck."
The point of these three examples, that represent many thousands, is that Christmas comes from heaven. But all to often, only those who lose their earthly light and liberty fully recognize this truth. When we have so many earthly lights, we sometimes fail to see the beam from heaven. Thank God we do not have to spend Christmas deprived of liberty, love, light, and laughter. But let us remember, we only have all of these blessings, and more, because God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law. Christmas comes from heaven, but secondly note-
II. CHRISTMAS COMES FROM HISTORY.
Jesus did not come into history in a fiery chariot, announcing, "This is Christmas!" He came from heaven, but he came by the same slow process that all men come by-conception, development, and birth. Jesus came into a particular historical context. Christmas marks the day that God became historical. As the Son of God, Jesus existed with the Father for all eternity. But as Jesus the man, he began His history on that first Christmas.
Christmas is a new beginning. History is divided between B. C. and A. D., because when Jesus was born, something began which never before existed. God is no longer on the outside of history, reaching in to touch man, but now is on the inside, helping man to reach up and touch God. Christmas is a holiday to celebrate this new beginning of the God-man relationship.
When the church invaded the world with the good news that God had invaded history, it was a minority group facing a vast majority, who already had their own holidays. The Jews had their feast days and festivals and so did the Gentiles. These pre-Christmas festivities were much like our own present Christmas celebration. They were held in December and January because work in the fields was done, and there was no better time for the leisure of feasting. Food, fun, sports, and the giving of gifts were all part of the Greek and Roman celebrations of December 25th and January 6th. These have been the two key dates for Christmas all through Christian history.
When the church gained power in the Roman Empire, it just made good sense for the Council of Tours, in 567 A. D., to proclaim the 12 days from Dec.25 to Jan. 6, to be the sacred season to honor the coming of Christ. Thus, the 12 days of Christmas took in the entire period covered by the pagan celebrations. The Church was saying, we claim this joyous period of the year for Christ, and dedicate all it's festivities to Him.
As Christianity spread, this process of incorporating the pagan holidays and customs into Christianity continued. Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century, to England in the 6th century, to Switzerland and Austria in the 7th, to Germany in the 8th, Hungry and Scandinavia in the 9th and 10th, and by the 11th century all of Europe had been converted to Christianity.
In this historic march of the church, every conceivable combination of pagan and Christian culture developed. It is easy for some 20th century critics, to look back and scream at this or that custom as being pagan. They did not have to go into those pagan cultures and strive to win those in darkness to the light of Christ. They failed to realize that Christian missionaries, all through history, have followed the same procedure as Paul did. They were all things to all men, that by all means they might win some. It is true that Christians incorporated pagan customs into Christianity. Things the pagans once did to honor their gods, they were now encouraged to do to honor their new found Savior, the Lord Jesus.
The legalist gets all bent out of shape about this. He yells compromise, and wants to rid the church of all these customs that have a pagan origin. This can sound very spiritual, but it is, in fact, a rejection of God's plan, and the whole purpose of the Incarnation. God made Christmas historical by entering history to change it from within. That is the strategy of the Incarnation. Change is not to be imposed on man from the outside, but it is to be accomplished as an inside job. Missions has followed this strategy. You don't go into a culture and force on them an external system. You enter a culture, learn it's values; understand it's ways of expressing love and celebration, and then you incorporate these into the Christian expression of love and the worship of Christ.
The point is, you cannot take anything that is pagan, and say it is now contaminated, and of no use to the Christian. This is utter nonsense, for everything that God has created was used by pagans before Christians even existed. The pagan world used the Sun, Moon, all the stars and planets, and all of nature in their worship. It is folly to try and avoid all of these things just because they used them as idols. The perversion of a thing is no excuse to reject the proper use of it. The pagans perverted sex and food and music and everything you can imagine. Should the Christian give up these things because of their perversions? Of course not! These things are to be used to the glory of God.
You do not honor the god Thor, by getting up and going to work on Thursday, just because that day is named after a pagan god. You do not serve the Emperor Augustus, just because you have a delightful family picnic in August. By having our prayer meetings on Wednesday, we do not honor the pagan god Woden, just because his name is attached to the day. We do not honor the pagan god Janus, just because we start off our New Year with a month named after him.
The point is, everything we do has been done before by pagan people, who did not know or love Jesus Christ. They sang, they prayed, they lit candles, they built temples, they fed the poor and they cared for children, and everything else you can think of. Anything that is not inconsistent with God's revelation, is proper for the Christian, even if pagans did it too. Yule logs, Christmas trees, lights, presents, feasts, concerts, you name it, they were all pagan customs. If these things are not inherently evil, but can be enjoyed with thanks to God, then they ought to be a part of the Christians Christmas. Christmas did not come to us ready made, dropping out of heaven, it came to us through the process of history, whereby the God of history touched and transformed everything in the light of Christ. Christmas comes from heaven, but it also comes from history. Thirdly,
III. CHRISTMAS COMES FROM THE HEART.
Paul says in verses 5 and 6, when we receive God's gift of His Son, He sends another gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit to indwell our hearts. This Spirit of His Son calls out in us, Abba, Father. The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of assurance that one is a child of God. This is the source of all our peace, joy, and love. This is the basis for all the self-esteem that is necessary to be what God wants us to be.
We can know that God sent His Son, and recognize Christmas comes to us from heaven. We can know of the progress of Christianity in time, and in the cultures of the world, and know that Christmas comes to us from history. But the bottom line is where Christmas becomes personal, and we experience it's meaning in our heart. When you can feel you are not a mere servant but an actual child in the family of God, then you are really into Christmas. This is why God sent His Son, and why he died and rose again, and why He is coming to receive us unto Himself. The point of God's whole program of redemption is to incorporate man into His eternal family. There is no higher goal in this universe than that of becoming a child of God. The ultimate gift of Christmas is to be able to call God, Father.
One of our problems is, even as Christians, we strive to get the spirit of Christmas from other sources. We like to get joy and security from other things. This can work to some degree, for things do give pleasure. But when we depend upon things, we lose our sense of balance. If things are the source of our joy, then the greater our wealth, and the more we spend, the greater will be our enjoyment of Christmas. This is a perversion of values, and can lead to excess and disappointments. The fact is, the poor shepherds experienced the same joy as the wise men. The source of Christmas joy is not possessions, but relationships. Christmas joy cannot be purchased like things can be.
A magazine recently described a shopping spree of an oil-rich Sultan. For each of his 19 wives he bought a Cadillac, and he paid extra to have them lengthened. Then he purchased two Porsches and 6 Mercedes, a $40,000 speed boat and a truck to haul it, 16 refrigerators, and a stack of luggage. For good measure, he added two Florida grapefruit trees, two reclining chairs, and a slot machine. The total bill was $1,500,000--plus $194,500 to get it all delivered.
Now, I am not saying that if I had an uncle like this, he could not add anything to my enjoyment of Christmas. The fact is, we all spend more money at Christmas than any other time of the year. Money is not a negative element in Christmas, in itself. . The wise men brought gifts worth a lot of money, and they supported the holy family when they fled to Egypt. Money was important even in the life of God's Son. But money cannot buy the meaning of Christmas for you. It is not the source of Christmas. Christmas comes from heaven, from history, and from the heart. If one has not opened their heart to receive the gift of God, there can be no true Christmas joy. The final spirit of Scrooge was expressed in his words, "I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year." Open your heart to Jesus and your Christmas too, can come from the heart.