Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why Defend Christmas?

I have gone back in forth in my mind about this topic over the years. But the recent debut of billboard wars between atheists and Christians leads me to say something about this.

Perhaps you are now thinking that I will blast the atheists and tell them why they are wrong. That Christians did not steal Christmas and that it is not a myth. Well, I am not.

What really bothers me is the Christian response of "defending Christmas". Defending it from what? That somebody says it is a myth? So what, that is exactly what I expect an unbeliever to think and say. What is being protected? Jesus? I hardly think that is either possible or necessary.

I think the problem is that many (American) Christians are just as steeped in the commercialism and greed of Christmas as those who have no faith profession. And we use the claim that it's Jesus' birthday as a shield for our over indulgences. Since the 19th century the holiday has been slowly moving in a decidedly non-religious direction and Christians have helped it along in many ways.

I wonder what percentage of Christians go to church on Christmas eve. Or even more importantly, how many go to Church on Christmas day when it happens to land on a Sunday? I remember the debates a few years ago about whether or not churches should be open on a Sunday that also happened to be Christmas. But if we really believe that Christmas is the significant day in the religious calendar we claim it is, than why not? This would seem to be more important than a tree and presents in the morning. (By way of self-disclosure, I did not go to church that day. I stayed home and opened presents with my wife. So, yes I could be accused of throwing stones in glass houses here).

Some may claim that it is important to defend Christmas because it is a significant event in salvation history. Granted, the Christian celebration of Jesus' birth is important and should be celebrated. But it is NOT the foundation of Christianity. More important is the claim of Christ's resurrection. It does not matter whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin. What is important is that he was raised from the dead.

This seems to be the focus of the New Testament authors as well. Jesus' birth is only mentioned in two of the four Gospels, and with very different details. Mark says nothing about Jesus' birth nor does John. In fact, except for Matthew and Luke no other New Testament writer mentions or alludes to any miraculous circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth. Paul notes that Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4) and that he was of the line David (Romans 1:4). But Paul never mentions a virgin birth. True, he and many of the other New Testament writers call Jesus "the Son of God," but that is not a reference to a miraculous birth.

But the one thing that you read time and time again in the Gospels, Paul and the rest of the New Testament is the importance of Jesus' resurrection. This is what made Jesus different and the Son of God (Romans 1:4). There were numerous stories in antiquity of famous people who had "unusual births" some more fantastic than that of Jesus. But for the early church it was not Jesus' birth, but his resurrection that demonstrated his importance.

Yet modern Christians pay little attention to Easter. This is a day we will go to church. But that is because it always falls on Sunday and we rarely pack the day with the kind and amount of events that we would Christmas. Besides, Easter has that pesky habit of moving its date every year which makes it hard for retailers to plan "Easter sales".

No I am not suggesting that we abandon Christmas. I admit that I enjoy the decorations and the carols and even giving gifts.

But I do think we would do well to rethink it and put more energy into Easter. I also don't we feel the need to "defend Christmas". The truth is we can't. Christmas is a Christian holiday that is not celebrated as such by the Christians. We are just as distracted about the meaning of the day as are the atheists.

Christmas does not need defending.


  1. Well said. Awesome picture. I wish we spent more time observing Advent...since that seems to me to be a more accurate metaphor for the Christian life...Christians might do well in this season of over-doing everything to remember the virtues of patience, the beauty of peace, the discipline of waiting...Advent is a good corrective to the anxious, over-stimulated American Christmas...

  2. You cannot separate Incarnation from Atonement and resurrection. Christmas and Easter are both part of the same grand narrative of salvation; the loss of one means the collapse of soteriology. Why stress one over the other? Because the NT contains more verses on the resurrection? That's not a good argument at all. The NT does not use the term "Trinity" but I doubt any thinking Christian would say it isn't worth fighting for.

  3. Dear JSM,

    I am not suggesting that we separate incarnation from atonement. That is not the point of the post. My point is the way Christians are acting today. You are right, both Christmas and Easter are part of the same grand narrative.I never suggested otherwise. I am not suggesting we eliminate Christmas. I do think, however, that we don't give enough attention to Easter and that the energy surrounding Christmas has more to do with the commercialism than it does any religious aspects.

    However, I still do think that it is significant that the NT authors have more to say about Jesus' resurrection than his birth. The fact that Paul twice acknowledges Jesus' birth to a human woman does not exclude incarnation.

  4. I agree with you concerning the amount of energy spent on Easter as compared with Christmas. For Christians, both should be held as the highest of holy days - without the consumerism as you rightly suggest. My problem, however, is not your 'elimination' of Christmas, but the diminishment of the importance of the Virgin birth. It's absolutely important. I don't think it's helpful in a theological sense to value one aspect of Christ's saving work (e.g. resurrection) over another (e.g. Incarnation). It is the total Christ that saves - person and work. One should not be subordinated to the other. Finally, I agree that the NT writers say more about the resurrection than the birth, but that does not necessarily mean that it is more ipmortant salvifically.

  5. JSM,

    Does incarnation require a virgin birth? I would see it as a very important sign that God is doing something in the world, but is the virgin birth the cause of the incarnation or the sign?

  6. Incarnation does not require a virgin birth, but because it is only found in 2 gospels does not take away from the fact that it is found in Scripture and should be recognized as truth. And as a SIGN- if the prophecy is a sign- then "Behold a virgin shall conceive" should be taken as a fulfillment of prophecy- therefore she was a virgin. and I know the argument about what the virgin meant. not going to get into that argument. But I like the basis of what you said- I have always thought it would be more important to send Easter cards than Christmas cards! We do ignore that "holiday"- and still focus on the secular aspects of it when we do pay attention to it. We should take advantage of the opportunity though to reach others for Christ during BOTH seasons!

  7. In a sense we might say that the Virgin Birth is a 'sign'. However, I think that theologically speaking, the best way to understand the VB is neither as sign nor cause, but God's *efficient means* by which the Incarnation takes place. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is the first place (off the top of my head) that strongly suggests the full divinity and humanity of the Son. So, yes, I think it is necessary for a biblical understanding of the Incarnation.

  8. I tend to agree more with JSM on this one (two full natures of Christ). The Virgin Birth is an essential aspect for the incarnation, if only because it was the chosen means by which the Son was made incarnate (and yes, I realize that is circular reasoning). If we agree that one cannot separate the action and will of God, then what God does is an accurate reflection of what God wills. If God has a good, perfect, and pleasing will, how is the Virgin Birth not essential to the incarnation?

    If the point of the post is that Christians are indistinguishable in their consumerism from the atheists, then I agree. We should rediscover the true meaning of Christmas. However, you point to the lack of consumerism, tree decorating, carols, et al as (American) Christians paying little attention to Easter. Isn't that a good thing in your schema? As a Christian who lives in the U.S., I cherish both Christmas and Easter and it's a big deal in our house. In fact, Easter probably has a clearer and more important theological purpose precisely because (cultural?) Christians pay "little attention" to it.

  9. I've enjoyed reading this discussion.

    JSM, you write, "I agree that the NT writers say more about the resurrection than the birth, but that does not necessarily mean that it is more important salvifically." Nowhere do the NT writers affirm a salvific effect of the birth of Jesus. Indeed, when one looks at the subsequent church's reflection on soteriologically, it centers on cross and resurrection. Jesus' birth does not figure in. It is just not there. It must be remembered that the birth of Jesus is important only because of Easter. In other words, if not for Easter, Jesus birth wouldn't be worth recording. Without Easter, Jesus' birth is just one more Jewish boy born to peasant stock in first century Judea. The two simply cannot be equated as of equal importance.

    I would agree with Dr. Byron in raising the question of whether incarnation requires a virgin conception. (By the way technically Protestants do not accept virgin birth, but virgin conception). I suppose the answer to that is that it does not, but since both Matthew and Luke affirm as much, I see no need to reject the claim unless there are sufficient grounds to do so. And the impossibility of such an event is to my mind not a strong enough argument. If we are going to go there, then we need to throw out resurrection as well. God can do we we think impossible.

    So, it seems to be that the question of the necessity of the virgin birth is irrelevant; that Matthew and Luke tell us that it happened and that God chose to bring about incarnation in this way is sufficient for me. God didn't have to call Saul on the Damascus Road either. He could have called another, but he didn't; so asking whether Paul could have been the only one to me is a question that is somehow beside the point.

  10. I am glad that this post has generated such interest. But I am also disappointed that it has become a toss around about the virgin birth. It was never my intention to challenge the importance of that claim. My goal was/is to get people to realize that as Christians we really pay little attention to the resurrection. I have been influenced by NT Wright's two books on the topic and think that he helps bring a needed corrective.

    I am not questioning the claims of Matthew and Luke since that would require another post and lot more energy. My point, however, is that we tend to put a lot of energy into it and not enough into Easter.

  11. John... yes... agreed... he is risen!

  12. John - with all the debate, I do want to affirm that I agree with your essential point about the energy we put into one important Christian holiday while not so much on the other.

    However, Allan, I must take serious issue with your statement that soteriologically the subsequent church only reflected on the cross and resurrection. Nothing could be further from the truth. All one needs to do is read the early fathers to see the soteriological importance of the kenosis - birth - Incarnation of Christ in their thinking. Even before the cross event, the Incarnation itself - the union of the Word with human nature - has saving significance. The cross may be the culmination, but the birth and life of Christ begins the work of salvation. So while we can all agree on the (quite obvious) importance of the cross and resurrection, the early church was just as adamant about the importance of the birth / Incarnation event for salvation....and that it was by the Virgin.

    He is risen indeed...and he is born!

  13. JSM, I don't want to belabor the point. Yes, of course incarnation is important. I never meant to suggest otherwise, but without Easter incarnation makes no sense. If the early church's worship is a guide for us (and I think it is), then we must take note of the apparent lack of celebration of Christ' birth in the earliest centuries. This lack did not deny the significance of incarnation. Incarnation was highlighted precisely because of cross and resurrection. We must not neglect that Paul's point in Philippians chapter two culminates in death and resurrection.

    Which gets to Dr. Byron's point in his post. We celebrate Christmas like it is THE saving event and treat Easter as an appendix... and in many Protestant traditions, Good Friday hardly even figures in.

  14. Allan, I don't know very many people who view Christmas as THE saving event while treating Easter as a tack-on, but if they do they are of course wrong.
    Finally, two quick notes on your post:
    1.) Incarnation makes no sense without Easter, but neither does Easter make sense without the Incarnation. One should not be diminished at the expense of the other in our soteriologies.
    2.) The lack of any *celebration* of Christ's birth in the early church (and I'm assuming you mean the first three or four centuries?) has no bearing on the fact that writers such as Irenaeus speak to the saving significance of the entire life and work of the Incarnate one. He never 'celebrated Christmas' as we know it, but his idea of salvation depended on the birth and Incarnation. I would argue that the greatest of the patristic thinkers follow in his wake. 'What is not assumed is not healed.'

    Gentlemen, it's been fun.

  15. uh... er... find "Christmas" in the Bible. My wife and I are long-standing, God-fearing, Bible-believing Christians. We do not celebrate Christmas in any way and haven't for years. We certainly buy presents for certain family members, but we don't for ourselves. We don't decorate. We don't have a tree. Come to our house on Christmas morning and our house is the same as on any other day. We allow others to do as they will, but in our home we don't see the need. I pray to God every day. Every day I feel His presence. Every day I know of His love, His blessings, His Mighty Gift (Jesus). I say let Christmas go. The early Christians certainly didn't celebrate Jesus' birthday. Let the pagans have their celebrations. Christians should avoid "holidays" as they are all fabrications of men - not of God. My wife and I treat one another to gifts any old time. We don't need birthdays or man-made holidays to prompt us. And we have our own Bible study, right here in our home, no matter what day of the week, or month, or year. So, y'all have fun, but know that YOU DO NOT HAVE TO CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS AT ALL! There is nothing Biblical about it whatsoever. And, for that matter, I do not worship a "baby" Jesus. I worship a living, risen Savior, a Majesty of Heavenly Glory, a King above all would-be kings. He sits with the Father and awaits the chosen day when He will come to reign. That day, brothers and sisters, that day I will celebrate!

  16. Where is 'Christmas and its celebration' in the Bible?
    25th December???

  17. Are we not to remember the importance of Jesus's death every day?