I know this sounds like a ridiculous question. The answer should be pretty obvious, especially for a Christian. But before you assume that you already know the answer, and before you click out of the window because Christmas is over and this post seems a little late in coming, you should know that I have a reason for posting this now. Just stick with me for a moment!
But first, let me back up to the weeks leading up to Christmas. This year I happened to come across a number of articles and television programs that “exposed” the elephant in the Christmas room–namely, that Jesus was not born on December 25th. In fact, he wasn’t even born in December. Judging by the information given to us in the Bible, he was probably born some time in the Spring.
While seemingly a scandal of the Christian faith, this “mistake” was made for a reason. The specific date of December 25 was chosen by earlier Christians in an effort to subvert popular pagan rituals associated with the day. An article on Christianity Today’s website explains:
“The eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273, reflects a convergence of Origen’s concern about pagan gods and the church’s identification of God’s son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.
Western Christians first celebrated Christmas on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion.” (“Why December 25, Elesha Coffman, Christianity Today, Aug. 8, 2008)
Why not aim for accuracy? Why choose a date so glaringly wrong? As one atheist critic put it, “What religion celebrates the birth of its leader 4 months early?” Although the answer to that question is partially provided by the above excerpt, the full answer comes from understanding WHY Christians celebrate Christmas at all. After all, Christians have not always done so.
To understand why Christians celebrate Christmas, you have to understand the role of Christmas in the larger life of the church. If you were raised in a Baptist or non-denominational church, then you probably grew up celebrating TWO main holidays each year: Christmas and Easter. However, you are also in the minority. For hundreds of years, Christians have observed numerous seasons of Christian holidays all year round. You may have heard of terms like “Advent” or “Lent” without knowing what they meant, but they compose what is commonly known as the Christian Year.
The Christian Year is a calendar of Christian seasons that trace the life of Jesus. It begins with Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. And as the Christian Year progresses, Christians remember the life of Christ. They prepare for his birth, celebrate his life, prepare for his death, mourn his crucifixion, and celebrate his resurrection. As Christians, we are called to follow the path of Christ, and the Christian Year is a brilliant way of helping us to do so. Every single year, Christians throughout the world embark on a year-long, spiritual journey that follows the life of Jesus. With the help of the Christian calendar, Christians train themselves to remember Jesus’ whole life, and live it out accordingly.
I love this idea, and it’s one of the old church traditions that I wish evangelical churches embraced with greater consistency. It’s also the reason I am posting this today. Having just finished Christmas, we sit near the beginning of the Christian Year. Rather than take a break until Easter, this season sets us on a journey of remembering the scope of Christ’s life.
So if the Christian Year sounds interesting to you and you would like to learn more, below is a brief outline of what it means. If you would like to join your Christian brothers and sisters who trace the path of Christ each year, I encourage you to start out by picking one season this year to study and learn more about. A good one to choose is Lent, which you may have already heard about. During Lent, Christians prepare for Easter by fasting and repenting over the sin that crucified Christ. Lent is a dark season, but it is also a powerful one!
Remember, the old traditions of the church may feel unfamiliar but they were a valuable part of discipleship for ancient Christians. You may not celebrate all the same traditions today, but Christmas is a vestige of those long-established practices. We celebrate Christmas, not because December 25th is a special day, but because we are forgetful people who lose the beauty of grace if we do not intentionally remember it each year. Christmas is just one day in the year-long discipline of remembering.
The Christian Year (excerpted from christianitysite.com)
- Advent: The four weeks before Christmas are a preparation time for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. The color purple symbolizes penitence and a readiness to learn. The first Sunday of Advent is the Christian New Years Day.
- Christmas: (Nativity of the Lord) Remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ, the coming of Creator God into the midst of the human family. The colors of gold and white symbolize a festival time.
- Epiphany: January 6, through the beginning of Lent, remembers the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. The word itself means “revelation,” and the day not only celebrates God’s self-revelation through the birth of Jesus but also commemorates God’s revelation to the Gentiles (as symbolized by the magi).
- Lent: This 40 day event is a time of fasting in imitation of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness of temptation. It is a time of preparation for Easter and of repentance by people.
- Holy Week: The days between Palm Sunday and Holy Saturday before Easter are known as Holy Week. These days observe the events in the life of Jesus from his entry into Jerusalem through his crucifixion and burial. Palm Sunday is sometimes called Passion Sunday because of the tragic events of the week to come. The primary observances of Holy Week are: Maundy Thursday (remembering the Last Supper); Good Friday (the passion and death of Jesus); and Holy Saturday (the burial of Jesus).
- Easter: The principal and most ancient festival of the Christian church year is Easter. It is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, his victory over sin and death. Each Sunday is also a weekly celebration of the resurrection of Christ.
- Pentecost: This is a celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit to a gathering of believers shortly after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The festival is observed 50 days after Easter. The day takes place on the Jewish day of Pentecost, thanksgiving for the first fruits of the wheat harvest. Pentecost signaled the birth of the Christian church, which has in turn led some Christians to celebrate the day with baptims. Pentecost begins on Sunday and continues through the Saturday before Trinity Sunday.
I agree with you about the traditions of the historical Christian church. Many churches seem to have bucked all tradition… and if tradition is done for tradition’s sake, then this is a good thing. But traditions that have true meaning can be a good and very helpful thing.
I wish that the churches that had and displayed lots of traditional elements explained them more and that churches who have shied away from tradition embraced it a bit more too.
Of course, this is coming from someone with a catholic upbringing who came to faith in high school and bucked against tradition for about a decade… But I’ve come to a much better understanding of the reasons behind some of the traditions and they have much more meaning to me now.