Each December, I reflect on how the Lord brought me to hear and believe the Gospel. Not because of Christmas absolutely, but because my own conversion to Christ is quite intertwined with Christmas. Before we were Christians, typically the only time my family went to church was on Christmas Eve. So my primary exposure to the Church and Christianity early in life was related to Christmas.
Reaching Every Christmas
What I typically heard at each service was some attempt to connect the elements of a traditional Christmas to the Lord Jesus. There was the pastor who read through a presentation of how normal ornaments remind us of God. Another pastor even dressed-up like ol’ Saint Nick himself! Even though my understanding of Christianity was limited and desperately inadequate as an unbelieving kid, I distinctly remember thinking: “This is a reach.” Because I would return to our tree, gifts, and ornaments self-consciously confused. Seriously, this was all about Jesus? Something didn’t add up.
Then, on December 26, 1993, our family first visited the church at which I would eventually hear and believe the Gospel and it was for a Christmas music cantata! I became a Christian the following summer of 1994. But the next Christmas, which was my first as an actual Christian, here’s the thing – I was even more confused. Trees, gifts, and pastors in red pajamas made even less sense!
As I wrote previously, in Revising Christmas, Again, the difficulty we face in making Christmas about the Lord Jesus is not a new problem. It’s a very ancient one. Reality is that there’s never been a time when Christmas was a simple affair focused on Jesus. And just by surveying the Gospels, we can begin to see why.
Did the Lord Want a Birthday?
As you read the Gospels, you’ll notice that they’re fairly sparse with information regarding Jesus’ birth. That’s a conspicuous oversight when you consider the preponderance of detail we have regarding the His death and resurrection. We can date His death on the cross and the empty tomb with some precision, in early April, 33 (see Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity for a discussion of dating). What does that indicate was the crucial (from Latin, crux, “cross”!) event in Jesus’ life for the earliest Christians and the real burden of the inspired chroniclers of Jesus’ life? Apparently, it wasn’t His birth.
Another helpful addition is the relationship of birth celebrations and pagan kings in the first centuries. Roman emperors were overt and ostentatious in celebrating their birthdays. So that even one early church leader, Origen (ca. 165-264), mocked these birth festivals:
Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday. For indeed we find in the Old Testament Pharaoh, king of Egypt, celebrating the day of his birth with a festival, and in the New Testament, Herod. However both of them stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood…. But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day (after the example of Job, Jeremiah and David).” (Homily on Leviticus 8)
Now Origen had more than a few theological hang-ups, and I really like my birthday, so I’m not saying we should give those up, but it is a striking contrast, isn’t it?
Pagan emperors ensured everyone would remember their birth, but the Lord did not leave us enough information to be able to accurately calender His. It seems that He means to teach us the vast difference between His Lordship and that of the kings of earth:
Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Ps 2:10-12)
And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth (Ps 89:27)
Our inability to calendar and celebrate Jesus’ birthday provides us, I believe, with an important lesson. Pagan emperors focus on their births because they’re never going to rise from the dead to rule the universe. They’re never going to be highly-exalted with a name above all others. They’re never going to be raised so that every tongue confesses them as Lord (Phil 2:8-11).
It sort of helps explain why the Lord may not even want a birthday. When you compare it to universal exaltation, who cares about having a pitiful party like Caesar?