Category Archives: Christmas

The Confrontation of Christmas

From Tim Keller’s 2007 Christmas sermon:

The world embraces Christmas in a way it has never embraced Good Friday and Easter. I think the world sees Christmas as being rather affirming — it’s all about peace and goodwill. Isn’t that nice? Actually, the message of Christmas is incredibly confrontational. It says the reason for Christmas is the world’s wisdom has failed.


Related posts —

Santa Christ

What follows is Sinclair Ferguson’s article, “Santa Christ,” as published in Tabletalk Magazine, December 1997.


I took the hand of my toddler son (it was two decades ago) as together we made our way into the local shop on the small and remote Scottish island where earlier that year I had been installed as pastor.

It was Christmas week; the store was brightly decorated and a general air of excitement was abroad. Without warning, the conversations of the customers were brought to a sudden halt by a questioning voice from beside me. My son’s upraised index finger pointed at a large cardboard Santa Claus: “Daddy, who is that funny looking man?” he asked.

Amazement spread across the faces of the jostling shoppers; accusing glances were redirected to his father. Such shame—the minister’s son did not even recognize Santa Claus! What likelihood then of hearing good news in his preaching at this festive time?

Such experiences naturally encourage us to bewail the fact that the western world is given over annually to its Claus-mass or Commerce-mass, a reworked pagan Saturnalia of epic proportions whose only connection with the incarnation is semantic. Santa is worshiped, not the Saviour; pilgrims go to the store, not to the manger. It is the feast of Indulgence not of the Incarnation.

It is always easier to lament and critique the new paganism of secularism’s blatant idolatry than to see how easily the church—and we ourselves—twist or dilute the message of the incarnation in order to suit our own tastes. But, sadly, we have various ways of turning the Saviour into a kind of Santa Claus.

For one thing, in our worship this Christmas we may varnish the staggering truth of the incarnation with what is visually, audibly, and aesthetically pleasing, thus confusing emotional pleasure with true adoration. For another, we may denigrate our Lord with a Santa Claus Christology. It is alarming to see how common it is to manufacture a Jesus who is the mirror reflection of Santa Claus. Christmas time demands clearer thinking on our part!

A Pelagian Jesus emerges under Santa’s influence. Like Santa he simply adds something to lives that are already in fairly respectable order. Christmas dinner is simply a better dinner for the well-nourished. Jesus thus becomes an added bonus who makes a good life even better.

Or, perhaps, it is the slightly more sophisticated Jesus who, Santa-like, gives gifts to those who have already done the best they could! Thus Jesus’ hand, like Santa’s sack, opens only when we can give an upper-percentile answer to the none-too-weighty probe, “Have you been good this year?” Heaven, like Santa, helps those who help themselves. The only difference from medieval theology here is that we do not use its Latin phraseology facere quod in se est (to do what is in one’s self).

For yet others, this is the time of year for the mystical Jesus who, like Santa Claus, is important because of the good experiences we have, irrespective of the details of historical reality. As long as we have the experiences, all is well.

But Jesus is not to be identified with Santa Claus; worldly thinking—however much it employs Jesus-language—is not to be confused with biblical truth.

The Scriptures systematically strip away the veneer which covers the real truth of the Christmas story. Jesus did not come to add to our comforts; He did not come to those who were already helping themselves.

Those whose lives were bound up with the events of the first Christmas did not find His coming an easy and pleasurable experience. Mary and Joseph’s lives were turned upside down; the shepherds’ night was frighteningly interrupted, and their futures potentially radically changed; the Magi faced all kinds of inconvenience and separation; and our Lord Himself, conceived before wedlock, born probably in a cave, would spend His early days as a refugee from the bloodthirsty and vindictive Herod.

There is, therefore, an element in the Gospel narratives which stresses that the coming of Jesus is a disturbing event of the deepest proportions. And that by necessity, since He did not come merely to add something extra to life, but to deal with our spiritual insolvency and the debt of our sin. He was not conceived in the womb of Mary for those who have done their best but for those in whose flesh there dwells no good thing. He was not sent to be the source of good experiences but the One who was destined to suffer the pangs of hell in order to be our Savior.

The Christians who first began to celebrate the birth of the Savior saw this. They were not, contrary to what is often mistakenly said, simply adding a Christian veneer to a pagan festival—the Roman Saturnalia—any more than Christians who mark Reformation Day are adding a Christian veneer to the paganism sometimes associated with Halloween. In fact they were committing themselves to a radical alternative to the world and its Saturnalia, refusing to be squeezed into its mold. They were determined to fix mind, heart, will and strength exclusively on the Lord Jesus Christ. There was no confusion in their minds between the world and the Gospel, Saturnalia and Christmas. They were citizens of another Empire altogether.

Indeed, such was the malice evoked by their other-worldly devotion to Christ that during the Diocletian persecutions of 300 A.D. a number of them were murdered as they gathered to celebrate Christmas. Their offense? Worship of the true Christ—incarnate, crucified, risen, glorified, and returning—who that day demanded, and had, their all.

One Christmas eve, in my teenage years, I opened a book given to me as a present, and found myself so overwhelmed by its teaching on my recently-found Savior that I began to shake with emotion at what had dawned on me: The world did not celebrate His coming but crucified Him. Doubtless I was an impressionable teenager. But does not the world still crucify Him in its own, often subtle ways? Unless the significance of what He did at the first Christmas shakes us we can scarcely be said to have understood much of what it means, or of who He really is.

Who is He in yonder stall
At whose feet the shepherds fall?
‘Tis the Lord, O wondrous story,
‘Tis the Lord, the King of Glory.

Let us not confuse Christ with Santa Claus. Let us find ways this Christmas, of making Him known in all His incarnate wonder.

My Favorite Version of the Christmas Story

… is of course the version with the dragon in it — Revelation 12:1–6.

I discuss this passage in my book Lit! to show the spiritual value of dragons (see pages 85–86). But here’s the gist of Revelation 12:1–6 in the words of D. A. Carson in his outstanding book Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway, 2010):

The scene is grotesque. The dragon stands in front of the woman. She is lying there in labor. Her feet are in the stirrups, writhing as she pushes to give birth, and this disgusting dragon is waiting to grab the baby as it comes out of the birth canal and then eat it (12:4). The scene is meant to be grotesque: it reflects the implacable rage of Satan against the arriving Messiah.

Do we not know how this works out in historical terms? The first bloodbath in the time of Jesus takes place in the little village of Bethlehem — in the slaughter of the innocents as Herod tries to squash this baby’s perceived threat to his throne.

Jesus is saved by Joseph, who is warned by God in a dream and flees to Egypt. Herod, in a rage, “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16). Satan later manifests his rage against Jesus in the temptation, and he manifests his rage against the church in every temptation. Satan’s rage manifests itself when some people try to push Jesus over a cliff, and others take up stones to stone him. Satan is after Jesus and wants to destroy him by any means possible.

Behind all these attempts to destroy Jesus is the red dragon, and behind the red dragon is God himself, bringing to pass his purposes even in the death of his Son to bring about our redemption.

But the text does not go on to talk about Jesus’ triumph here, not because this book has no interest in him but because the triumph of Jesus has already been spectacularly introduced in Revelation 4–5. The great vision of Revelation 4–5 controls the entire book. There we learn that Christ, this male child, is the only one who is fit to open the scroll in God’s right hand to bring about all of God’s purposes for judgment and blessing. He is the Lion and the Lamb, the reigning king and the bloody sacrifice, the heir to David’s throne yet the one who appears from God’s throne. Because of his struggle, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation are redeemed. Countless millions gather around him who sits on the throne and the Lamb and sing a new song of adoring, grateful, praise.

But here in Revelation 12 we move from Jesus’ birth to his ascension; we run through his entire life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension in two lines: he “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” and “was snatched up to God and to his throne” (v. 5). The male child, Jesus, is born and snatched to heaven. In other words, this passage focuses not on Christ’s triumph — that is presupposed — but on what happens to the woman and her children, the ones left behind. And that is us: the messianic community, the people of God, the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ. This side of the cross they are described as “those who obey God’s commands and hold the testimony of Jesus” (v. 17). The woman (the messianic community) is the focus of the passage.

Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?

bonhoeffer-xmas

Why Advent Should Be Slow

Slow is bad in the modern vernacular, but around this time of the year the slow celebration of Advent serves as a reminder of just how right and precious slow is the plan of God. Take the lesson from Octavius Winslow and the words he penned in his book The Glory of the Redeemer (1844):

The entire theocracy of the Israelites was interwoven with a system of symbols and types of the most significant and instructive character. It was thus the wisdom and the will of God that the revelation of Jesus to the Church should assume a consecutive and progressive form. Not a sudden but a gradual descent to the world, marked the advent of our adorable Redeemer.

The same principle of progressiveness is frequently seen in a saving discovery of Christ to the soul. Not by an immediate and instantaneous revelation, not by a single glance of the mind, is Jesus always made known and seen. Long and slow is often the process. “Unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise” [Malachi 4:2]. Observe, it is a gradation of light. The Sun rises – beam follows beam, light expands, Christ is more known; more known, He is more admired; more admired, He is more loved; and more loved, He is more implicitly obeyed and devotedly served. Thus, the “path of the just is as the shining light, which shines more and more unto the perfect day” [Proverbs 4:18].

Thus has been the revelation of Christ’s glory to the Church of God. In her infancy – her nonage – she was placed “under tutors and governors, until the time appointed by the Father.” Not prepared to sustain the sudden and full revelation, God disciplined and trained her by various types and ceremonies; thus, wisely, and, it must be admitted, graciously, shadowing forth His dear Son by gradual but increasingly clear and luminous discoveries, until the “fulness of time was come” [Galatians 4:4], when He appeared the great Antitype of all the types, the glowing substance of all the shadows, the full signification of all the symbols, the “brightness of the Father’s glory, the express image of His person” [Hebrews 1:3].

I will not be offended if you rush past this blog post on to the next thing in your busy day. But please don’t rush too fast past Advent this year. Take it in slowly, take it in at Godspeed.

The Cradle

A Christmas poem by Eugene Peterson published in his book, The Contemplative Pastor (1989), page 169:

The Cradle

For us who have only known approximate fathers
And mothers manqué, this child is a surprise:
A sudden coming true of all we hoped
Might happen. Hoarded hopes fed by prophecies,

Old sermons and song fragments, now cry
Coo and gurgle in the cradle, a babbling
Proto-language which as soon as it gets
A tongue (and we, of course, grow open ears)

Will say the big nouns: joy, glory, peace;
And live the best verbs: love, forgive, save.
Along with the swaddling clothes the words are washed

of every soiling sentiment, scrubbed clean of
All failed promises, then hung in the world’s
Backyard dazzling white, billowing gospel.

On Christmas Gatherings

From J. C. Ryle’s book, Practical Religion (London: 1900), chapter 11:

In town and in country, among rich and among poor, from the palace to the workhouse, Christmas cheer and Christmas parties are proverbial things. It is the one time in the twelvemonth with many for seeing their friends at all. Sons snatch a few days from London business to run down and see their parents; brothers get leave of absence from the desk to spend a week with their sisters; friends accept long-standing invitations, and contrive to pay a visit to their friends; boys rush home from school, and glory in the warmth and comfort of the old house. Business for a little space comes to a standstill: the weary wheels of incessant labour seem almost to cease revolving for a few hours. In short, from the Isle of Wight to Berwick-on-Tweed, and from the Land’s End to the North Foreland, there is a general spirit of “gathering together.”

Happy is the land where such a state of things exists! Long may it last in England, and never may it end! Poor and shallow is that philosophy which sneers at Christmas gatherings. Cold and hard is that religion which pretends to frown at them, and denounces them as wicked. Family affection lies at the very roots of well-ordered society. It is one of the few good things which have survived the fall, and prevent men and women from being mere devils. It is the secret oil on the wheels of our social system which keeps the whole machine going, and without which neither steam nor fire would avail. Anything which helps to keep up family affection and brotherly love is a positive good to a country. May the Christmas day never arrive in England when there are no family meetings and no gatherings together!

But earthly gatherings after all have something about them that is sad and sorrowful. The happiest parties sometimes contain uncongenial members: the merriest meetings are only for a very short time. Moreover, as years roll on, the hand of death makes painful gaps in the family circle. Even in the midst of Christmas merriment we cannot help remembering those who have passed away. The longer we live, the more we feel to stand alone. The old faces will rise before the eyes of our minds, and the old voices will sound in our ears, even in the midst of holiday mirth and laughter. People do not talk much or such things; but there are few that do not feel them. We need not intrude our inmost thoughts on others, and especially when all around us are bright and happy. But there are not many, I suspect, who reach middle age, who would not admit, if they spoke the truth, that there are sorrowful things inseparably mixed up with a Christmas party. In short, there is no unmixed pleasure about any earthly “gathering.”

But is there no better “gathering” yet to come? Is there no bright prospect in our horizon of an assembly which shall far outshine the assemblies of Christmas and New Year,—an assembly in which there shall be joy without sorrow, and mirth without tears?

Merry Xmas!

It’s been said that “Xmas” is a seasonal, subversive attempt by secularists to kick Christ out of Christmas. I don’t doubt that is the intent of some folks in our culture. In reality, the Greek spelling of the name Christ is Χριστός. In fact, the early Church often referred to Christ simply by his first Greek initial (X), or more commonly by overlapping his first two initials (XP). The simple cross (X) of course carried double meaning for the early Christians. So in that sense there’s not only a Christ in Xmas but also a Calvary. Far from a secularist attack, “Xmas” reminds us of Christ, his birth, and his cross, all at once. Merry Xmas!

The Meaning of Christmas: Comparing Dickens and Handel

The past week has been full of memories for me and my family. On Sunday afternoon we traveled to the Navy Academy chapel in Annapolis to hear Handel’s Messiah performed. The chapel is stunning and the performance was beautiful. On Wednesday night we traveled to D.C. to Ford’s Theater to see a performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Ford’s is very small and intimate and the play was incredibly well acted. The empty president’s box elevated above the stage is a reminder that lends further eeriness to Dickens’ haunted intentions.

Both experiences will live long in my memory.

But while I was sitting in Ford’s theater I was struck by the contrasting Christmas messages between Dickens and Handel.

I’ll begin with Dickens.

Dickens

For Dickens, Christmas is about getting unshackled from materialism to appreciate all the blessed relationships we’ve been given. That’s a very good message. And in my attempt to further discover Dickens’ understanding of the meaning of Christmas, I was led to his short book, The Life of Our Lord. He wrote it not primarily to be published but to be read by his children each Christmas, thus giving us a glimpse into the urgency of its annual, seasonal message. The book is Dickens’ retelling of Christ’s birth, life, death on the cross, and resurrection. And quite frankly, most of it is very good.

Yet here is the final paragraph of the book, the punch line, the meaning of Christmas – the meaning of the cross and all of Christianity – in summary:

Remember! — It is Christianity To Do Good always — even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbour as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to shew that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace.

For Dickens, the value of Christmas, and the Savior’s life and work it appears to me, is its ability to produce in us moral reform, enabling us to becoming better, do better, and ultimately to appease God, pleasing him with our moral reforms and effecting his forgiveness for our sins so that we can die in peace. You can hear all these theological assumptions echoing in A Christmas Carol, even into the final paragraph where we are assured that Scrooge “lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards.” Personal reform was the main point.

Handel

Then there is Handel’s Messiah. Here are some selected lyrics, which are passages drawn directly from the KJV Bible. Hardly any commentary is needed:

Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. [John 1:29]

He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. [Isaiah 53:3, 50:6]

Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. And with His stripes we are healed. [Isaiah 53:4-5]

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53:6]

He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of Thy people was He stricken. [Isaiah 53:8]

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though worms destroy this body yet, in my flesh shall I see God. For now is Christ risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep. [Job 19:25 and 1 Corinthians 15:20]

Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. [1 Corinthians 15:21]

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. [1 Corinthians 15:22]

O death, where is thy sting? O grave! where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]

If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea, rather that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us. [Romans 8:31-34]

And then it all closes with this magnificent scene of eternal, angelic worship:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen. [Revelation 5:12-14]

So beautiful!

I’m grateful Handel closed with yet another reference to the finished work of Christ. His entire message is soaked with the substitutionary blood of Christ. Jesus was born to die in our place, and died to be raised from the dead, and was raised to guarantee our bodily resurrection. In Handel’s work our eternal hope gets firmly placed on the shoulders of the Christ-child born in Bethlehem. Messiah is a magnificent work.

Contrast

I don’t know much about the life of Dickens, but clearly he was no mere deist. He pressed his children to see the importance of Christ’s incarnation, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and even the persecution of the early church. He seems to have a high regard for Scripture, and for this I am thankful. But it also seems that he boils down the meaning of Christmas to say little more than that Christ is our moral pattern to help us live Christianly.

By contrast, for Handel, the birth of the Savior marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. As that eternal plan begins to unfold on earth, Christ must be born, he must die a bloody death, and he must defeat the grave because we are desperate and helpless sinners. The entire salvific purposes of God begin to unfold in the Incarnation, in the birth of Christ.

For Dickens, Christmas is a reminder that we are all Scrooges, self-centered ungrateful nobs who yet have some hope of appeasing God through our personal reform.

For Handel, Christmas reminds us that we are all sinners, we are “in Adam,” and for that we are helpless to stop God’s righteous judgment towards our sin. Yet there is One who has paid the price to quench God’s wrath on our behalf.

In both A Christmas Carol and Messiah, all our warm and tranquil Hallmark Christmas sentimentality gets blasted by cold reality. Death is coming for us all, and the grave is approaching quickly.

Dickens wants people to die in peace.

Handel wants people raised from the dead.

Dickens’ hope is rooted in the future — in the finished work of moral reform necessary in our lives.

Handel’s hope is rooted in the past — the full and complete work of Christ on our behalf.

Dickens’ message is “do.”

Handel’s message is “done.”

Dickens’ work is good for what it is, a seasonal, warmhearted morality tale. For that I find it agreeable and commendable. But Handel’s work comprehends the scope of the hope-giving and guilt-freeing meaning of Christmas. For that I find eternal comfort, and hope for my ongoing battle against my inner self-centered, thankless Scrooge.

Christmas Cheer and Mounting Bills

One Thursday evening in late December, 1876, Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon on the comforting words of the Psalmist, “I flee unto thee to hide me” (Ps. 143:9). Near the end of his message he said this:

Suppose that twenty troubles should come to us in a day, and that we should flee unto God twenty times with them, I think that was might almost pray to God to send twenty troubles more, so that we might flee unto him forty times a day. Any reason for going to God must be a blessing to us, for going to God is going to bliss; so we may even turn our troubles into blessings by making them drive us unto him.

Have you been worrying yourself, since you have been here [in the service], about a trial that you expect to fall upon you towards the close of this year! You fear that Christmas is not likely to be “a merry Christmas” to you; there are many bills coming in, and not much hope of the money with which to meet them; well, then, flee unto God with that trouble; and whatever is burdening your heart or your mind, flee unto God about it, and leave it all in his hands, and go on your way rejoicing.

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