What do you really know about Christmas? Many of us take Christmas for granted as an unshakable American institution. However, the annals of Christmas convey something different. Recently I was doing research on the history of Christmas and came across an informative article on www.history.com (it is affiliated with the History Channel). The article both refreshed my memory and taught me some new facts. Overall it emphasized for me that Christmas has a bumpy past.
In the first centuries of the church, Christmas even didn’t exist! The early church Fathers’ thought it was prideful and pompous to celebrate one’s birthday, only the Roman Emperor did that. The major holiday that Christians did observe was Easter because it was a celebration of the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
Jesus’ Birthday was not recognized until around 350AD when Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as the official date. When he did, it wasn’t even called Christmas. It was called “the Feast of the Nativity.” Eventually this feast spread in popularity among Christians throughout the world. And it spread primarily because it was a “feast.” By the Middle Ages, the Nativity Feast had degenerated into a pattern of people attending Church and then partying raucously in a “carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras.”
Later on after the religious revivals in 17th century England, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans cancelled Christmas for 13 years (1647—60). When the Puritans came to America, they made Christmas illegal. I kid you not, from 1659—1681 the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston. Then over time, Christmas rebounded in popularity and it was declared a US Federal Holiday in 1870.
Since that time, many of us would agree that Christmas has become increasingly commercialized: it’s all about Santa and Rudolf; shopping and presents; wrapping paper and bows; trees with tinsel and blinking lights; fruit cakes and eggnog and so on.
Consequently, during this Advent season I have reminded our congregation that it is a good thing to strip Christmas of all this veneer and go back to the basics, to return to the essence of Christmas. How do we do that?
Take a moment and stare at the name “Christmas.” It is a combination of two words: “Christ” and “mass.” Obviously, “Christ” refers to Jesus Christ. The word “Mass” comes from the Late Latin word “Missa” which literally means “dismissal.” The last three words of the Roman Catholic Mass in Latin are “Ite, missa, est” which means “Go, it is the dismissal.”
Therefore, Christmas is primarily about Jesus Christ. It is about his incarnation: his coming as a baby which set off a chain of events including his growing into an adult, living a perfectly righteous life, teaching and healing people, training his disciples to launch his church, dying on the cross, and three days later rising from the dead.
Christmas reminds us that Jesus came for a purpose: to show what author Tim Keller calls “the initiating love of God.” In Matthew 1:21 an angel commanded Joseph “to give him the name Jesus [which means “the Lord saves”] because he will save his people from their sins.” Then Matthew indicates that Jesus is Immanuel, which means “God with us.” In Luke 2:11, another angel proclaimed to a group of shepherds the identity of Jesus: he is the Savior, Christ, and Lord. As Savior, he is the one to rescue us from our sins, failures, rebellion, selfishness, greed, and idolatry. The word “Christ” comes from the Hebrew word for “Messiah” which means “anointed one” or “chosen one.” Jesus is the one chosen by God the Father to deliver us, to free us, to give us new life, new hope, and a glorious future. The name “Lord” means “master; ultimate ruler; sovereign king.” Because Jesus is strong and powerful, he can do all these things!
The bottom line is this: even though the history and practice of Christmas is varied and uneven, the mission and character of Jesus Christ is not. And he is the essence of Christmas.