Chapter One of Church in Society: First-Century Citizenship Lessons for Twenty-First-Century Christians features introductory words about Christmas, set in the context of the controversy encountered by the first-century Church, and persecution that followed. Christmas 2020 won’t look the same for many around the world, but the memories will hold true. May you enjoy a blessed Christmas! [Footnotes in the text are not included in this excerpt, except one.]
Christmas this year will be celebrated in pretty much the same way it has been for decades, even centuries, depending on where you live and how you celebrate. In some households, it is a different celebration from what it once was. My childhood celebrations were focused on Santa Claus, gifts, and family. The message conveyed by Linus about the true meaning of Christmas in my favourite seasonal television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, gave me more a sense of warm comfort than an acceptable explanation of truth.
But one December day in 1981, that changed. When I accepted the truth of what Linus shared, the focus of my Christmas celebrations became the advent and birth of Jesus of Nazareth, called Christ.
The neighbourhood in which I grew up featured a variety of Christmas traditions. There were those, like us, who celebrated Santa Claus and family without questioning the true meaning of Christmas. There were neighbours who attended a birth of Christ mass or other forms of Christmas church service, either late on December 24 or on the morning of December 25, and others marked it two weeks later on January 6–7, dependant on whether their celebration was based on the Gregorian calendar (Western, i.e. Roman Catholic and Protestant) or the Julian calendar (Eastern, i.e. Orthodox). Consistent from one home to the next was a decorated tree in a main room of the house.
For a significant number in the Body of Christ around the world, Christmas celebrations are, for safety reasons, relatively private and quiet, even secret. In dozens of nations, Christians are persecuted for their beliefs, beliefs that run counter to those of either a religious or ideological majority who see the Church as a threat.
Some Christmas celebrations, and seasonal publications, entertain an annual deliberation about the actual birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth— who, history tells us, was born in Bethlehem. Like Linus, you and I can read the story in Luke 2.*
Is the precise date important? Queen Elizabeth II was born on April 21, 1926 but her official birthday celebration takes place with the annual military parade and celebration of the monarch’s birthday on the second Saturday in June. The nation celebrates in June even though the birth was on a different date.
There might be debate about the date of Jesus’ birth, but few in the twenty-first century question the historicity of His birth.
Other historical references in Luke’s account have been borne out as accurate. Non-Christ-following historians have also affirmed the life and crucifixion of Jesus, as well as the claims by His followers of a third-day resurrection from death to life.
Was Jesus the long-awaited Jewish Messiah? Many believed Him to be so, and word of His resurrection spread quickly.
*This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:8–14, KJV).