It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
December 8, 2012
Every year, as the Christmas season approaches, some folks object to the celebration of Christmas due to its allegedly pagan roots. Some critics are Christians while others are cultists (i.e. Jehovah's Witnesses). Before proceeding any further, let's draw a few distinctions.
The question at issue is not whether Christians have an obligation to celebrate Christmas. Rather, the issue is whether it's wrong for Christians to celebrate Christmas-given the allegedly pagan roots of the holiday.
Likewise, we're not defending any particular Christmas custom. That's something we can evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Christmas has its roots in ancient paganism. Suppose it co-opted a pagan festival. Would it be wrong for Christians to celebrate Christmas?
Invidious associations are not all of a kind. For instance, Roman Catholics have a cult of the saints. One objection to their cult of the saints is that patron saints simply replace patron gods and goddesses. The objection isn't merely that there's a genealogical connection between patron gods and patron saints. Rather, the objection is that patron saints are functionally and substantially equivalent to patron gods. That's classic syncretism.
Now let's contrast that to different types of invidious associations. Words often change meaning with the passage of time. Some modern words have unsavory associations if you trace them far enough back into the history of the English language.
But that's not a reason to refrain from using these words. What they may have meant in Elizabethan English or Middle English or Old English is simply irrelevant to contemporary usage. Those are obsolete connotations. Most contemporary English speakers are oblivious to those obsolete connotations. Moreover, scholars who are aware of those obsolete connotations ought to be astute enough not to take offense. They should make allowance for semantic change over time.
Conversely, it's possible not only to be aware of invidious connotations, but to consciously exploit those connotations for polemical effect. Scripture does this from time to time.
Take the serpent motif in the Pentateuch. You have the serpent in the Garden of Eden. You have the metamorphic snakes in the confrontation between Moses, Pharaoh, and the Egyptian sorcerers. You also have the "brazen serpent" in the wilderness.
It's likely that in each case, the Bible is deliberately playing on pagan associations to score polemical points. For instance, Egypt had snake-gods. Pharaoh had an image of a cobra (uraeus) embedded in his crown. That was an emblem of his divine power. When Moses and Aaron bested his sorcerers, that was a backhanded slap at Egyptian idolatry, and the divine pretensions of the Pharaoh cult.(1)
Likewise, there are examples in the Psalms and Prophets where the Bible writer is trading on mythopoetic imagery to lampoon paganism.(2)
To take another example, the Greek and Hebrew names for the one true God in Scripture have heathen associations. Bible writers didn't invent brand-new names for God. They adopted or adapted names from the preexisting language. Names which originally designated false gods. Bible writers didn't start from scratch in that respect.
The allegedly heathen roots of Christmas are long forgotten. But even if the associations were still fresh in the mind of the celebrants, that, itself, wouldn't automatically discredit the holiday.
Sometimes it is important to avoid certain associations as best we can. Take Acts 15 on the OT purity laws. To avoid giving unnecessary offense to the Jews, the Apostles struck a compromise. Up to a point they accommodated Jewish sensibilities. They wanted to maintain a mission to the Jews.
That admittedly pragmatic policy was adapted to a particular milieu. Times have changed. Nowadays, many men and women who proudly call themselves Jews disregard the OT purity laws. So Christian conduct this respect no longer carries the same capacity to offend Jews, inasmuch as this has become an intramural issue of what constitutes authentic Jewish identity within contemporary Jewry itself.
Then there's the famous case of Paul on meat sacrificed to idols. Paul's position is qualified. On the one hand, he doesn't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with consuming meat sacrificed to idols. Such meat can't defile Christians.
On the other hand, Paul is anxious not to unsettle the faith of immature Christians who suffer from scruples regarding meat sacrificed to idols.
Incidentally, this isn't a purely antiquarian scenario. Many Asians practice folk Buddhism, Taoism, veneration of the dead, &c. If you go to an oriental restaurant, you may notice statuary. Perhaps you assume that's decorative. Maybe so. But you may well be eating in the presence of idols.
I doubt many Christians, including those who oppose Christmas, give Chinese take-out a second thought. But in consistency, this may have pagan associations that are current rather than historical. Not a dead religion, but a living religion-albeit false. Real idolatry.
Not only are Christians not defiled by incidental pagan associations, but, as temples of the Holy Spirit, there's a sense in which we can consecrate residual pagan associations. Purify it. Conscript it to the service of Christ.
Jesus hung on the cross. "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree," says the law (Gal 3:13). Yet Jesus embraced the odious association. Jesus transfigured the odious association. Made death a source of life. Made night a source of light.
There's always a temptation to vest the assurance of salvation in the wrong thing. Some professing Christians find faith too insecure. Faith is subjective. Faith can flicker.
They want something objective, tangible, unambiguous. They vest their security in externals. In punctilious ritual. Or the equally punctilious avoidance of certain verboten practices.
Mind you, even that's deceptive. That has its own ambiguities. What makes a sacrament valid? How do you verify tactual succession throughout the centuries? Go down that path and you quickly lose your way in a man-made labyrinth.
The Puritans were rightly opposed to invented religious duties. That's why they stood against the church calendar.
But unless we're very careful, this can become just another invented duty. Not having a duty to celebrate Christmas becomes a duty not to celebrate Christians. It's a mirror-image of the error it opposes.
Although the Bible doesn't have a Christmas holiday, yet when Christians celebrate Christmas, they commemorate a Biblical event. And not just any event, but the midpoint in world history. The beginning of the end of our age-long pilgrimage.
When you take a long journey by foot or by horse, as our forebears used to do, for the first part of the journey you can't see your destination. It's too far away. It's obscured by hills, trees, and valleys. You don't know how close or far you are from your desired destination. It's one hill after another, one valley after another.
But there sometimes comes a point in the journey where the destination suddenly comes in view. Perhaps you climb another hill, which seems just like every other hill you have had to climb. But as you reach the summit, standing on the bluff, you suddenly see your destination at a distance. It may still be far away, but you finally catch a glimpse of what you yearn for.
You may have to descend again. You may lose sight of the destination from time to time as you continue across field and forest.
But everything on this side of the hill takes on new meaning from everything on the other side of the hill. What lies ahead feels very different from what lies behind. Now the days seem shorter. Now the pace seems to quicken.
For hope begins giving way to sight. Across the open expanse, you can finally see your desired destination. You have that to lead you and guide you, invite you and inspire you, for the duration of the journey. You are looking at what you were looking for. It beckons and brightens.
Christmas reminds us that we live on the other side of the hill. We are coming to Jesus because Jesus has come to us. Unlike believers who lived and died before the nativity, in types and shadows, we have reached the midpoint in the journey, where our destination becomes visible. Not yet tangible, but visible. Not here, but near.
In our pilgrimage, we may suffer setbacks. But from the hilltop we have seen our hoped for, longed for, lived for destination. As we move forward, we have that before our eyes. That's the unforgettable sight which steers us and cheers us onward and upward into the everlasting kingdom of light.
Steve Hays is the lead writer at Triablogue, one of the most widely read Christian apologetics blogs in the world.
1. For more on the cultic and occultic role of serpents in the ancient Near East, and/or the Biblical manipulation of these invidious associations to satirize and demythologize paganism, cf. J. Black and Antony Green, Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary (Austin : University of Texas Press, c1992 (2011 printing); J. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, 1997), chapters 5, 8; R. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice (Chicago : Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2008, c1993).
2. Cf. E Smick, "Mythopoetic Language in the Psalms," http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/OTeSources/19-Psalms/Tex...