HOW HAS THE CHURCH CELEBRATED JESUS DURING CHRISTMAS?
Evangelical Christianity is a continuation of Historic Christology and the Church’s celebration of Jesus at Christmas is a reflection of that continuing development.
Church Councils and Confessional Creeds
The Nicene Creed – A.D. 325 (revised 381); written to answer the question, who can truly save us?
“[I believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.”
The Chalcedon Creed – A.D. 451; a clarification of what the Church already believed about the Incarnation.
“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, or Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man . . . . in all things like unto us, without sin . . . . begotten . . for us and for our salvation . . born of the virgin Mary.”
The Apostles Creed – AD 700, By the 5th and 6th Centuries the Creed had become accepted as a part of the official liturgy of the Western Church.
“I believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven; and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy spirit; the holy catholic Church; the communion off saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.”
Winter Solstice and December 25
In the 4th Century Pope Julius 1 chose December 25th as the day the Church would celebrate Jesus’ birth. Why? An effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of pagan festivals to popularize the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
The Council of Carthage
A.D. 397 and the Canonization of Scripture. The Church formally agreed on the 27 books of the NT.
Martin Luther and the Bible
Martin Luther deserves a lot of credit for reforming how Jesus is celebrated at Christmas.
1. Sola Scriptura.
Martin Luther was the man whose life’s passion was to return Scripture to the central place of authority in the life of the church. Corresponding to the doctrine Sola Scriptura are Sola Gratia, Sola Fide and Solus Christus, meaning that Scripture teaches us and reminds us that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone and all because of the finished work of Christ alone on the cross.
The beauty of a fir tree glistening against the backdrop of a starlit night, brought to Luther’s mind the Star of Bethlehem.
Luther being overwhelmed with this experience in the woods, would want to share it with his family. It’s not too hard to imagine that in the retelling of Christ’s birth that Luther would enrich their celebration by relating to his family how the angels and shepherds were also part of the story of Jesus’ birth, by having gifts under the tree and singing – all of these things being part of how Jesus’ birth is related in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Luther being overwhelmed with this experience in the woods, would want to share it, with his family and friends. Celebrating Jesus at Christmas is good news. The angels announced that Jesus’ birth was good news and the shepherds in the fields found it to be true and couldn’t help but tell everybody about it.
Luke 2:1-20 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
You will notice verses 18 and 19 that the people were “amazed” at what the shepherds were reporting and Mary was “pondering these things in her heart.” Here’s the interpretation of these verses: people who were hearing for the first time about Jesus were inspired to want to hear and learn more; and, Mary was inspired to believe that, no matter what was yet to come, God would finish what He started.
4. The Message and Music
Martin Luther is credited with keeping the celebration of Christmas connected with Scripture and the truth of the gospel, and that is a connection that we need to remember. We have a record of how Luther connected the truth of the gospel at Christmas with singing. Luther actually composed a song for his family to sing. “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”
From heaven above to earth I come/ to bear good news to every home/ Glad tidings of great joy I bring/ Wherof I now will say and sing/ to you this night is born a child/ of Mary, chosen virgin mild/ this little child of lowly birth/ shall be the joy of all the earth.
Martin Luther kept the celebration of Christmas connected to Scripture and through Scripture inspiring this family to keep this tradition alive through successive generations with a fir tree decorated with lights and ornaments, with gift giving, family gatherings and with music.
I will reflect on my family traditions at Christmas and find one way to enrich my experience of celebrating Jesus’ birth.
I will commit to read the story of Jesus’ birth in the gospels and share that experience with my discipler.
I will pray for an opportunity to share the good news with someone who needs to hear it.