December 1, 2015

Why We Celebrate Christmas

by Nathan Busenitz

Today is December 1. That means there are only 25 days until Christmas.

Visit your local coffee shop, take a trip to the mall, or just drive through your neighborhood at night, and it’s easy to see that the so-called “Christmas spirit” is alive and well in American culture.

Some of the ironies of our culture’s fascination with Christmas are especially evident where I live in Southern California.

• It hasn’t snowed in Los Angeles in years, but snowflake decorations are everywhere.

• Reindeer don’t live anywhere near us, yet many of my neighbors will soon have them prominently displayed in their front yards (of the plastic variety, of course).

• We certainly don’t live in an evergreen forest. (The desert tends to be more “ever-brown.”) But, thankfully, local warehouse stores ship in Christmas trees by the truckload.

• All of this, so that for one month out of the year Southern Californians can pretend that we are walking in a winter wonderland.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is something very fun about all of the excitement and buzz that whirls around Christmas. A leisurely stroll past festive storefronts while holding a warm cup of coffee, or a nighttime car ride to go look at Christmas lights, these are some of my favorite things about Christmastime. Add in the joys of time spent with family and friends and Christmas becomes one of my favorite seasons of the year.

But there is also a danger in all of this: distraction. It is the danger of being so caught up in the celebration that we forget why we are celebrating . . . or more importantly, whom we are celebrating.

Secular society, of course, is especially adept at making Christmas into something that it is not. From a non-Christian perspective, the “winter holiday season” is not about Christ at all. It’s about commercialism.

It’s about shopping, gifts, traditions, food, and seasonal music. It’s about a jolly, overweight, bearded man from the north pole who dons faux red fur and sets off, with a big bag of toys, into the cold December night, seated in a flying sleigh pulled by magic caribou.

But for us, as believers, Christmas is something infinitely more wonderful than any store discount or fairy tale.

Christmas is the celebration of something priceless, something historical, something miraculous, something salvific. It is the day when we remember the birth of our Savior — the fact that the eternal second Member of the Trinity took on flesh and dwelt among us.

This is the season when we remember that the Son of God became a man — which is why He is called Immanuel, which means “God with Us.”

As Isaiah prophesied seven hundred years before His birth:

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us . . . And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

Two millennia ago, the angel Gabriel appeared to a young virgin named Mary and announced that a child had been conceived in her womb through the power of the Holy Spirit. Nine months later, baby Jesus was born. And though we might consider any birth to be something of a miracle, this birth was far different. It was not the surroundings that made it spectacular, for this birth took place in a stable where common livestock were present, and where the only crib was an empty feeding trough.

Even the amazing events that surrounded Jesus’ birth — the declaration of the angels, the worship of the shepherds, the presence of the star, the arrival of the wise men several months later, all of those incredible things that Mary treasured in her heart — they are not the essence of what makes His birth so wondrous.

No, His birth is glorious because it involves a great and incomprehensible theological truth: the mysterious and miraculous reality that God became Man! As the apostle John explained:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. . . . And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1–3, 14)

Stop for a moment and consider what the Apostle John has declared to be true:

• The Word is co-eternal and co-equal with God the Father (vv. 1–2).

• The Word is the Creator through whom all things came into being (v. 3).

• Yet, the Word took on flesh. He became a Man and He lived on this earth so that He could die to save sinners. That is the mystery and miracle of Christmas.

What a thought! The Second Member of the Trinity, God very God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, the One by whom all things were created and the One in whom all things hold together, left the glories of heaven to become a man, being born in a dirty, dark, primitive stable, so that He could grow up to die a criminal’s death in order to save hopeless sinners from the eternal consequences of their own foolish rebellion.

If He had not come, our salvation would not have been possible.

As Charles Spurgeon wrote regarding the incarnation: “Man became royal when Christ became human. Man was exalted when Christ was humiliated. Man may go up to God now that God has come down to man.”

The miracle of Christmas, then, is the incarnation of Christ: the reality that the Son of God took on flesh and became the Son of Man — so that as a perfect Mediator He might reconcile us to God.

Commenting on the glorious reality of Christmas, the church father Augustine left us with these eloquent words:

The Word of the Father, by whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born in time for us. He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, [selected] one day for His human birth. . . .

The Maker of man became man that He, Ruler of the stars, might be [weaned as an infant]; that He, the Bread, might be hungry; that He, the Fountain, might thirst; that He, the Light, might sleep; that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey; that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that He, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, Discipline, might be scourged with whips; that He, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; . . . that [He, the] Life might die.

To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, [chose] to become the Son of Man in these recent years. He did this although He who [was subjected] to such great evils for our sake had done no evil and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands, had done nothing to merit these benefits.

Therein lies the heart of the gospel. It is the reason why we celebrate Christmas; and the reason we will celebrate Christ’s incarnation for all of eternity.

Nathan Busenitz

Posts Twitter

Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • One word stands out — “salvific”! We get so caught up in our celebration of this wonderful event that we forget how pivotal it is in redemptive history.
    Thanks for bringing this blurred image into focus!

  • Jane Hildebrand

    I remember reading John chapter 8 where Jesus was arguing with some Jews about Abraham being their father and Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I Am.”

    Being a JW, I stopped and stared at those words for the longest time. Suddenly I felt my heart beating faster as I realized that the God of the OT, the Great I Am, had now become approachable in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe it was at that moment that I was born again as I found myself on my knees thanking God for forgiveness. Precious Immanuel.

    • THAT IS AWESOME, JANE. I LOVE THAT TESTIMONY.

    • Eric Davis

      Amen, Jane.

    • Ciscostudent561

      Thank you Jane! This reminds me of a conversation I was having with two JW’s. One was Militant the other was the yes man I guess. Anyways I brought up that scripture and the Militant one blamed poor translation but I’ll never forget the look on the other one’s face when he read it. It is truly the Word of God that saves souls.

  • Thanks for that!

  • Chris Nelson

    We need to take the “Mass” out of Christmas, really. The Puritans were correct about this. Even if we seek to celebrate this for some reason we need to rename it “Christbirth” or something that does not mention Christ’s repeated and continual sacrifice in the papan/popish celebration.

    • I’m guessing you don’t use the words Thursday, Monday, Sunday or Saturday either? 😉

    • Chris, I understand.

    • Still Waters

      Christmas is simply the most common English name. It is also sometimes called The Nativity. The French name is Noel, derived from the Latin for Nativity. Similarly, Navidad is the Spanish name.

  • tovlogos

    And what that child did when He came of age was exegete the Father — another amazing thought in verse 18 of John 1. Before that no one knew God intimately, other than the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10), and Jesus (John 14:9). The thought of looking God in the face — what a glorious experience.

  • Jason

    I love the contrast section of the Augustine quote.

  • Dear Nathan, greetings in the Lord’s Name!
    As a senior who desires to follow and please Him, I’m unhappy with this post and with the views of a new generation of nonconformists for you have forgotten some things. I’m perplexed. May the Lord give us all more light from His Word and the testimony of the great cloud of witnesses who went before us and who rejected Christmas as a Roman Catholic invention that mixed paganism and the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ – profane and holy. Doesn’t it matter any more?

    • Ira Pistos

      Hi Tomaria,
      You addressed this to Nathan and I’m certain that he will have a superb answer for you. I hope you don’t mind that i take the opportunity to share my thoughts.

      I understand your perspective, I used to think as you do.

      These are things I’ve come to understand that have changed my thinking.
      It doesn’t matter how the holiday came to be, what it is now is a perfectly fine day for Christians to celebrate their Lord.
      An extension of my old logic should have led me to refuse to acknowledge the days of the week due to the pagan origins of their names. We see how broadly this thinking can be applied when this is considered.

      When the world sees us do battle over such things as this, it only reinforces in their minds their perception that we are foolish at best, that we are divided, divisive and our message is suspect.

      Within the Christian family, what happens when we fight over this? Bitterness? Resentment? Barriers to fellowship. We trip each other up rather than uplifting each other.

      The origins of this day do not matter. It is a cultural reality and perhaps the last one where this world still has a chance to catch a glimpse of what is truly real if we celebrate our Lord with joy.

      In a world that is deliberately distancing itself from God, let us not burn the providential life rings that we might otherwise throw to those in need.

      • Jason

        We need to be careful not to adopt those things that are contrary to living in the Spirit.

        Some of the Celtic, Norse, etc… belief systems are finding their way back into small groups of people, and we wouldn’t want our celebration to make a brother stumble if they had been involved in them and are tempted to place some spiritual significance in the traditional decorations (for example) but that’s going to be rare.

        A more common issue is intentionally trying to convince our children that a fat man using magic to squeeze down a chimney and transverse the world in a single night actually exists. Far better to share the real story of Nicolis and discuss the gift of generosity, though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading Christmas stories so long as they know it’s fantasy.

        However, so long as we don’t have a weaker brother and aren’t doing anything contrary to godliness, feastivities are just a practice of Christian freedom that seems very similar to the meat from the market place discussion in 1 Cor. 10.

        • Still Waters

          The trouble with the argument that certain traditions have pagan origins is that those origins are speculative. Take the Christmas tree. The concrete records show that it is a German Christian invention from the 1500s. The speculation is that the tree was a carry over from the tradition of pagans bringing greenery in to decorate their homes. The flaw in that speculation is that by the 1500s, Germany had been Christian for hundreds of years. Why would they suddenly reintroduce a long forgotten pagan custom?

          • Jason

            My point was not so much about the pagan origins of the traditions (though I did use that as a possible example of concern, so I apologize if it is not correct).

            Instead, I was defining the opposite bounds that I find in scripture to Christian liberty. We should not practice our liberty when we know it would put a brother or sister in Christ to temptation or when we ourselves are compromising our own walk to do it. Maybe alcohol being served at a get-together would be a better example.

            If anyone is attempting to enforce a bunch of rules that don’t run those risks, than they are following a law of man’s own design regardless of the accuracy with which they recite history.

      • Ira, hello. Thank you for explaining your point of view. Here’s mine, and may the Lord keep me from going backward on the narrow way, displeasing Him. I’m answering at length, with my husband’s blessing, because this issue is so important, and The Cripplegate is significant to Reformed Baptists and what it posts is given credence.

        My former view was simply one of enjoying Christmas, along with my share of the seasonal blues. Now that I know the truth about it, I can’t go back to it anymore than I can return to Roman Catholicism, which probably sees many of us as secret Catholics and congratulates itself on the success of the Counter-Reformation.

        What once was Saturnalia, what occultists celebrate as Yule, what America promotes for profit and indulgence, and the day when Roman Catholic priests celebrate the Christ Mass, crucifying Him yet again and again, can’t be a good choice for celebrating Jesus’ birth.

        On a side note about birthdays – didn’t Solomon say “A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.”?

        What happened to the regulative principle of worship?

        Of additional importance, to worry about and act upon the assumption that we’re giving a poor witness when we’re standing for the truth within the Church is wrong. The world will always hate the Gospel – it will always be suspect. It’s only credible to those whom the Spirit of God is drawing to Jesus Christ.

        The argument about the days of the week is an argument ad absurdum. Plus, as a friend explained,“God created those days no matter what they are called. He did not create the pagan/papist traditions of men’s ‘holy’ day that honors the sun-god no matter if you slap Jesus’ name on it. God hates this abomination and calls your will-worship vain and an abomination. Deuteronomy 12:30, 31 is still in force.”

        Also of importance is the fact that celebrating this day leads to breaking the second commandment. Even if this is only displaying an image of “Jesus” as an infant, it’s still transgression.

        We need to take up our cross and follow the Lord.

    • Charity

      Maria: I stumble over our celebration of Christmas and especially things like Christmas Trees in church. However, as I’ve tried to lay aside legalism and judging others by my own convictions I have found that I seldom have need to share this conviction. Just as we have various opinions among good Christian people about celebrating Halloween we can differ on Christmas because in Christ we have liberty.

      • Thank you for your kind response, Charity!
        I understand many of your thoughts but don’t believe that this touches on legalism or liberty of conscience. Like you I’ve seldom found an opportunity to share one-on-one, but just pray that the person’s eyes will be opened to things that displease the Lord.
        This is the first time I’ve learned that the matter of celebrating Halloween was something devoted Christians could differ on.
        All these things should be examined so that we are not in Rome’s camp of adultery with the world.

        • Nicki Ann

          Maria: We had quite some heated discussions online about Halloween and several bloggers wrote on the topic. Like you and Charity, I have long abstained but many believers find it harmless fun. Part of it I think is that we are so far removed from the pagan origins. I just know that my plate is full dealing with my own sin and I don’t get overly concerned about such things in the lives of people who are otherwise clearly submitted to Christ and seeking to live for the glory of God. Both holidays are great opportunities to share the gospel and that is cause to rejoice.

          • Hi, Nicki Ann! There is a lot to appreciate in your and Charity’s posts, especially your gracious tone.
            But you see, many of us are not far removed from pagan origins when our upbringing and education has been Roman Catholic.

          • Nicki Ann

            Maria: I understand completely what you are saying. I have one suggestion and one question.

            Question: What do you suggest that we do? We are not going to change the western Christian world by ourselves, but what can we do? What should we do?

            Suggestion: If your pastor is not aware of your convictions and concerns I would encourage you to make an appointment with him immediately. This is the perfect time of the year to discuss these things; we are at the brink of the season but not yet fully into all of its trappings. I would not expect him to cancel all that the church does to celebrate Christmas but if nothing else, it may keep him thinking about the issue all the days of this month. If there is one thing in particular that troubles you more than others, I would mention that to him and possibly, he would curtail that one thing. Biblically we are supposed to defer to the weaker brother, and whether it is accurate or not, in this you and I will be considered the weaker brother.

          • Nicki Ann, this is good advice and hopefully we’ll take it – our Pastor wants to speak with us about concerns we have. He knows that we are sovereign grace people, for example, and the little Baptist church he pastors isn’t. Hopefully we’ll get to speak with him soon. Thank you! God bless you!

      • HFK

        Hi Maria, Charity and Ira! I know Clint Archer earlier compared Christmas to Halloween- I would not go that far. Although both feasts have pagan roots, I struggle much more with the idea that Christians can place skeletons and ghosts in their front yard while also embracing Christ as the one who conquered death. To me, the two practices are irreconcilable both in fact and in conscience. Halloween is a holiday filled with pagan magic and mystery, things that we as Christians reject. Christmas as a holiday is at least in our present culture associated with fellowship with family and friends, giving, peace, etc. and so I do not think it is not correct to put them on one shelf together.

        However, I personally do have a problem with Christmas as a CHRISTIAN holiday, not with Christians celebrating it or having a good time during this time of the year with family, eating cookies and placing reindeer in their front yards. Since we do not know when exactly Christ was born and it is common knowledge that the church invented the date for Christ’s birth to coincide with Saturnalia, many nonbelievers I know conclude from the mythology surrounding Christmas that Christ’s birth itself is a myth. Christmas, though Christ is at its root, has become something else in our society and to some extent has always been closely intertwined with the surrounding pagan world.

        As Christians, we must be careful not to play into the secular notion that Christmas is purely about giving to others, joyful family celebrations, peace on earth, and thankfulness. To be sure, this is all well and good, but we must be clear as Christians that Christ is not just an ideal or a heartwarming story like Rudolph and Frosty, but a historical reality that transformed the earth through His perfect life, death, and resurrection. Keeping Christ in Christmas is not enough — we must properly understand Christ and distinguish ourselves from the cultural Christianity that still is present in our western culture

        • HFK, you’ve mentioned something I never considered, that unbelievers sometimes conclude that just like other myths of this season, that Jesus’ birth to a virgin in Bethlehem is a myth too. This makes sense. I enjoyed your thoughts!

        • Ira Pistos

          I can really only just begin to tell you all how moved I am to see the discussion progress with such tenderness to each other and devotion to our Lord.

          Maria, I was saved out of Catholicism as well. I believe that I know first hand, how very wary you are and I respect that sincere and well placed devotion.
          @disqus_T9SDGwHHud:disqus
          Well said regardless of where we stand on Christmas.
          Christ is paramount, who He is and where we place Him in our lives is paramount.

        • Still Waters

          Unbelievers conclude that Christ was just another myth because they want to believe it was just another myth. The pagan origin theory was propagated by liberal scholars of the Enlightenment and Victorian eras who wanted to reduce Christ to simply another development in the evolution of religion. However, the actual historical records would seem to contradict that theory. The very ancient churches of Syria and Egypt celebrate Christ’s nativity on January 6 and have done so since before the first records of the Western church celebrating Christmas – and they had no reason to be conciliating European pagans as they weren’t even in Europe. The early church writer, Ireneaus, who lived from about 130-202 – just a century after Christ – placed the date of Christ’s conception on March 25. Nine months later would be December 25. There are other early church records which indicate similar dating.

  • Still Waters

    One wonderful thing about the widespread celebration of Christmas is that non-Christians are actually preaching the gospel to themselves. Every Christmas, a local radio station tells where the different performances of Handel’s Messiah are taking place. There are dozens, some by world renowned musical groups, others by small local groups. The text of the Messiah is pure Scripture and gives the gospel clearly. I often think of what Paul said, “Some indeed preach Christ of envy and strife… What then? Every way, Christ is preached and in that I rejoice.”