Friday, December 23, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Reasons Not to Celebrate Christmas

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The Becoming Christians website wants you to know that if we would just dig deep enough in our Bibles, we would find reasons not to celebrate Christmas.

Tom: Hey, I’ll bite. Immanuel Can, this sounds like something you wrote about recently in your post about legalism. This Christmas naysayer has given us five reasons to put away the eggnog and put on a hair shirt. We could probably find more if we kept digging, but these should stir up a little anti-Christmas spirit, don’t you think?

Immanuel Can: I checked the website. It looks like a guy named Joshua Infantado, who says he’s not theologically trained or academic in any way, but wants us to join his “free exclusive masterclass”. He writes, “My main objective is not to simply equip you with academic knowledge of God’s word, but to teach you how to apply them.” Let’s roll with that. Academic credentials aren’t an absolute prerequisite for biblical knowledge, so maybe he’s got something to say. Where shall we start?

Tom: I’m glad you said that last bit, since I can offer our readers precisely as many academic credentials as Mr. Infantado. Presumably we can both read, so we’re on an equal footing with scripture. Why don’t we look at his “Reasons Christians Should NOT Celebrate Christmas” one by one, and see if they hold up?

Happy Birthday?

He starts with this: “December 25 is not the birthdate of Christ”. The way he gets there is certainly questionable; for example, I don’t think we can reasonably speculate about whether or not the Roman government of Judea might have ordered a census when the temperature was below freezing in Judea. They certainly did other things to Jews that were not very nice. But I agree with him: we don’t know exactly when the Lord was born. Is that a valid, biblical reason not to acknowledge or celebrate his coming into our world? Many of us celebrate the Lord’s death weekly. Even if that had occurred on a Sunday, which it likely did not, its anniversary couldn’t possibly occur 52 times a year. So there is no New Testament principle that the date of a celebration must be rigidly conformed to the date of the event one is celebrating.

IC: Yes, we could only have one such celebration.

The Pagan Festival Argument

But if somebody says that Christmas used to be the Roman festival of Saturnalia (December 17th) or dies solis invicti nati — “day of the unconquered Sun”, should we be more concerned?

Tom: I like how you neatly segued into Mr. Infantado’s second reason for rejecting Christmas celebrations, IC. He says, “Christmas is a pagan festival.” And, yes, there is no denying there used to be a Roman festival honoring the god Saturn that occurred in mid-December. Worse, as this website points out, “the earliest record of Christmas that we have is from the Chronography of 354 A.D., which recorded that a feast celebrating the nativity was held on December 25th of 336 A.D. The same day was also used to celebrate the birth of the Roman god Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, the patron deity of the Roman Sun Cult”.

So there is that. It reminds us that, yes, the Romans grafted Christianity onto their existing religious calendar in order to popularize and co-opt it, largely for political purposes. So let’s concede that happened. But come on, how many people today intend to clandestinely honor the Sun or Saturn when they sing Christmas carols? Precisely none.

The origins of a practice may have a stench of brimstone around them, but the meaning of the practice as far as God is concerned does not remain forever tied to its ancient history. It belongs in the realm of conscience, in the hearts of believers. If you doubt that, read what Paul wrote about disputable matters in Romans 14. A devout Jewish Christian might even eat meat offered to idols without damaging his relationship with the Lord, provided he did so in good conscience. The only issue of concern is testimony.

Applying that principle to our Christmas controversy, I would say that if you run into a “weaker brother” who is all worked up about Sol Invictus, maybe that’s the time to backburner the Christmas stuff. But I’ve been waiting my whole life for anyone in my orbit to mention that. Thanks for bringing it up, IC. Do you still want the wine gums I bought you?

IC: Always. Nothing’s better.

Making Up Laws

Okay, I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Infantado would be any happier if we moved Christmas to July or something. I think not, judging by his third point. He claims that since we were never commanded to celebrate the birth of Christ, it would be wrong for us to do so. He says we should have a direct command, or it means we are “making up our own laws and commandments”, and that this must imply we think we are “better than God”. Thoughts?

Tom: Well, I don’t think we’re making up our own laws with respect to Christmas. I know people who celebrate it and people who don’t. I’m not trying to convince them of anything, or tell them what to do or not do. I’m fine with either choice, even if Mr. Infantado is not.

But that’s an interesting argument. So if we don’t have an explicit commandment, we can’t do it? I guess he has written similar articles about Thanksgiving Day and Easter then. But let’s stick with scriptural examples. God gave the Jews seven feasts to celebrate. The book of Leviticus spells that out for us. In the book of Esther, the Jews of the exile created an eighth annual feast, Purim, to commemorate the relief they got from their enemies. Purim was instituted not by God, but by a politically powerful Jew named Mordecai. Nevertheless, it’s there in scripture, it was celebrated thereafter, and God never condemns it.

Defending Mr. Infantado

IC: I’m going to try to defend Mr. Infantado. (It’s not easy.)

Tom: You saint.

IC: His argument is not that we don’t have a commandment, but (he thinks) that we do — for certain holidays (he later cites the Leviticus 23 ones); so inventing a new holiday would be inventing a new commandment, he thinks. If we invent a new commandment, saying, “Thou shalt celebrate Christmas”, we’re acting like we’re “better than God”.

Tom: Paul writes the Galatians about their Christian freedom. He says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The legalist says, “You must do this” or “You can’t do that.” The Christian says, “All things are lawful for me.” The issue is not whether we can or can’t, it’s whether something is helpful. It’s hard to see how a Christmas celebration centered around Christ and received with thanksgiving could be either dishonoring to God or unhelpful to our fellow Christians.

IC: Ugh. I’m sorry. I’m not doing very well at defending him. But that’s the best and fairest attempt I can make at putting together his argument. To be honest, I’m not really sure I can save it.

Tom: A valiant effort. Can we move on?

Christmas is an Abomination

His fourth reason is “God called Christmas an abomination”. He gets there by quoting Deuteronomy 12:19-32, and equating Christmas with the Canaanite incineration of their children on the altars of Molech. If any scripture might be less applicable, I’m not sure what it might be.

IC: Aw, now he’s making my job impossible. I’m going to try again. Okay, his argument is supposed to be that God, in the Torah, was forbidding people to eliminate pagan practices and replace them with Christian ones; and that doing so would be the equivalent of Israelites becoming worshipers of Baal or Ashtoreth? I’m trying very hard not to make it look bad immediately, but it’s getting harder by the minute.

Tom: Yes, I’m stumped too. The syllogism he’s attempting seems to be something like this:

   Pagan festivals are an abomination
   Christmas is a pagan festival
Christmas is an abomination

I don’t think it is, but even if it was abominable to God at some point in the fourth century, it has surely diminished in its abominable-ness in a generation where almost nobody knows what it originally represented. And I’m not at all sure God is displeased when you take something bad and replace it with something better.

Eclipsing the Actual Festivals

Anyway, for the sake of completeness, let’s take a look at number 5: “Christmas hides the actual Festivals of God”, in which our friend actually attempts to argue that Christians should be celebrating Pentecost, the Passover and the Feast of Weeks because Christ and the apostles did, and that the existence of Christmas keeps us from doing so.

Can you think of a comeback to that one, IC?

IC: Ummm … when he includes the OT feasts, he’s already lost his case. How does a person who offers a “masterclass” in Bible studies fail to know something as basic as the difference between Israel and the Church? If we take him at his word, as he cites Leviticus 23, he’s arguing we should be practicing not just the Sabbath, but also the Day of Atonement, Firstfruits, Booths, Unleavened Bread … and with all the associated sacrifices and rituals. And he’s concluding that the reason these festivals are currently getting shunted aside is because of Christmas. I wonder what he’d make of Easter.

Can you find a point we can save from his argument, Tom? I’m at a loss.

Santa, Sentiment and Spending

Tom: No, I’m afraid that last one finished me off. What do you think, IC? Is there anything biblical that should concern Christians about celebrating Christmas?

IC: Well, I can give to him that Christmas is not a biblically-ordained festival, but that doesn’t seem like much of an objection. Festivals were not forbidden, so long as they were the right kind; and we have no indication that the festivals of the OT were ever prescribed for the Church, or that the Church was forbidden from having their own special days. To convert an occasion from being a pagan one to a Christian seems reasonable; after all, isn’t conversion what we’re all about? And, as you say, I can’t see that anyone has any association with, or keeps up the Sun‑worshiping practices of the ancient Romans. In fact, it seems to me that the world today seems offended that Christmas is too Christian, and keeps trying to make it about snowmen and good feelings.

Tom: I don’t know of any Christians who see celebrating Christmas as a “work” they can do to earn salvation, but I know plenty of Christians who want to make up new, extra-biblical rules for other Christians. Here’s a blog doing a side-by-side comparison of Santa and Jesus Christ, and as you may guess, it’s not favorable. Here’s another that says the early Jews and Christians didn’t celebrate birthdays.

When Paul wrote to the Colossians, he said, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Amen to that. That’s maybe the only thing in the New Testament we might quote about the keeping of feasts. He’s not saying, “Don’t keep them”, but rather, “Don’t let anyone else tell you that celebrating — or not celebrating — them has any effect on your relationship with God. That has been established on another basis entirely.”

There’s little spiritual danger to worry about from Christians celebrating the birth of Christ with thanksgiving and joy while the rest of the world is occupied with Santa, sentiment and spending. I think there’s greater danger in imagining ourselves spiritually superior to the people celebrating because we don’t.

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