The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. [Colossians 1:15-20]
The early church didn’t celebrate Christmas. At least not as a special feast day or as the modern-day retail orgy of capitalistic idolatry that we call Christ’s birthday today. But the early church did recognize that the event of Christ’s birth was a significant event in human history and they celebrated it regularly with the reverent awe and jubilation that it deserves.
Last week, as I was getting ready to celebrate Christmas I had a chance encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness co-worker of mine. The office Holiday Luncheon as we call it so as not to offend anyone, was held at the restaurant across the street and after I’d had my fill and stayed a respectful amount of time I decided to return to the office to finish up a bit of work before heading home for the night. As I came back in I noticed that this individual was sitting at the reception desk. It’s not unusually to see certain admin staff taking a turn at reception when the regular people are away, and I immediately recognized that she must be covering while most of us were at lunch. As I walked past I casually asked if she had had a chance to get out and enjoy a bit of time with the rest of us.
“I don’t celebrate Christmas”, was her immediate and matter of fact response.
In this day and age, it is not uncommon to encounter people who do not celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ. We live in a multi-cultural society. At the last census only 67.3% Canadians self- identified as Christians with less than half of those attending services more than 3 times per month. But a large percentage of people who do not identify as Christians still celebrate Christmas in one form or another. My next-door neighbour is a Hindu, born and raised in India. His seven-year-old son knows all about Santa Claus and was all too happy to explain to my wife in detail everything he had put into his letter to the North Pole. Apparently, Santa doesn’t care if you know anything about Jesus, only if you’re good.
Christmas isn’t just for Christians anymore and hasn’t been for quite some time.
So, when my co-worker, who is descended from Irish protestants and married to a man French Roman Catholic origin stated flatly that she doesn’t celebrate Christmas I was a bit taken aback. But then I remembered why. Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few other pseudo-Christian groups do not celebrate Christmas on December 25 because there is no historically credible way of pinpointing the exact moment of Christ’s birth.
December 25 was chosen as the date by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 336 A.D. in part, to combat the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Prior to Constantine some Christians had estimated the date to fall any where between December 6 and January 6 (the day many Coptic and Orthodox Christians still recognize today), citing historical records of the Roman census and, the reason why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem in the first place.
Still others, notably the Jehovah’s Witness and a few other fringe groups, contend that the day was more likely in the spring or summer since Shepherds would not have been tending flocks out in the fields in the winter. Personally, I think that argument is weak, winter in the middle east is still warm enough to tend flocks outside even if it might have been rare.
Anyway, the fact is, whether you celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th, January 6th or some other time the historical event is still the fulcrum on which history turns. The earliest Christians knew that and celebrated it just as much as we do today.
Which brings me back to the earliest Christmas Carol.
Paul’s letter to the church at Colosse opens with a poem that could have easily been set to music. To our modern eyes it might not look much like a poem because when it is translated to English it loses much of it’s poetic feeling, but I assure you was originally a poem and likely a song.
This poem tells us four things about the birth of Jesus. What it accomplished and how it changes history.
1 – Jesus brings God to us
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. [Colossians 1:15]
He is God incarnate! If you want to see God and understand what he is like look to Jesus. If you want to follow God and do his will do what Jesus taught. Everything up to this point, all the laws and the prophets are mere shadows of what has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus. Put another way, if the Old Testament conflicts with anything Jesus taught, throw it out, Jesus is the true image of God.
Jesus brings us to life
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. [Colossians 1:16]
All things were created through him. We exist because he made us for himself and all things were created through him. The law brings death and condemnation. We have life because of Jesus.
Jesus brings life to us
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [Colossians 1:17]
He sustains us. He breaths life into us. There is a popular contemporary Gospel song that I hear on the radio from time to time that repeats the refrain, “It’s your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise to you only.”
Jesus brings us to God
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. [Colossians 1:19-20]
The ministry of reconciliation brings us back into perfect unity with God. This unity is a common theme in Paul’s writing. It comes up again in 2 Corinthians 5 where he says,
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. [2 Corinthians 5:18-20]
Ever since Genesis 3 and the so called, fall of man the path of history is a story of mankind’s failed attempts through rules and regulations to reconcile with God. It wasn’t until God came in human form and showed us his love for us, a father’s unfailing love, that reconciliation became possible.
It is a Christmas, or when ever you choose to acknowledge the historical reality of Christ’s birth, that we can truly celebrate that Jesus came to bring God to us, bring us to life, bring life to us and to bring us to God. That is the gospel, and that is what we acknowledge when we celebrate Christmas.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.