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THREE CHRISTMAS MYTHS
28th December 2003
By Rev Dr Gordon Moyes
The Return of the King, the final film in J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
trilogy, opened on Boxing Day. The film has a great message. One cast member
added a powerful perspective of his own this week. He talked about how the crises
and challenges depicted in Tolkien's mythical world might help us cope with
those we confront in our world today.
According to Rhys-Davies, this message has a "huge resonance for today." For someone who, as he put it, believes in "Judeo-Greek-Christian-Western civilization, recent developments, especially in Europe, are a catastrophe. The civilization that has given us democracy, the equality of women, the abolition of slavery and the right to true intellectual dissent is under assault specifically by radical Islam." Instead of resisting that assault, parts of Europe are committing cultural suicide. Rhys-Davies pointed to demographic trends in Europe where, in some places, the majority of children being born are the children of Muslim immigrants. It is politically incorrect to notice this fact, but it is folly to ignore it. These are strong, but necessary words. Our culture is hesitant to use the word evil, refusing even to recognize what's at stake in places like Iraq. But that price must be paid. As the trailer for The Return of the King tells us, "there is no freedom without sacrifice." Tolkien understood that, and so does the man who brought his heroic dwarf to life.
Tolkien's ring cycle is classic myth - a story that reveals a deeper and hidden truth. Rhys-Davies is interpreting one of the deeper, hidden truths. The author, J. R. R. Tolkien, was a committed Christian, a close friend of C.S.Lewis, and he was determined to reach a new generation by allowing them to discover the truth for themselves underneath the myth of his story.
Another great myth is also a trilogy: the three myths of Christmas.
Underneath the three myths of Christmas lies a deep and significant meaning. I did my own research with some children. I asked, "What is the first thing that comes into your mind when I say, "Christmas". There was a roar of agreement: "Presents." I next asked, "In what place was Christmas first celebrated?" Again a cry of agreement from a few who knew, "Bethlehem." Then I asked a third question, "Who do you think of when I say, "Christmas?" Now a greater roar than any before: "Santa". The trouble is, that all answers are not correct. They are three Christmas myths! I think Paul points to the deeper meaning in a few verses which are not about the myths of Christmas, but all about its deeper meaning. Galatians 4: 3-7"So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father." So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir." Paul provides here the reality of Christmas which is quite different from the three myths of Christmas.
Myth 1. THE ACTIVITY OF CHRISTMAS IS NOT OUR GIVING BUT OUR RECEIVING.
The children said the chief thing that came to mind was "presents". But Paul makes it clear the chief thing lies in our receiving the gift of Jesus Christ, not our presents. "God sent his Son." "But God...." These words show the Christian message is the turning point of history. Apart from these words, life offers no future hope for any anyone. Mankind is lost, without hope and without God. We can only look for "The Return of the King."
But God has intervened in a way that brings an effective and complete salvation. Paul says, "God sent his Son." From the human point of view, this happened "when the time had fully come." Historically this was true. It was a time when the pax Romana extended over most of the civilized earth and when travel and commerce were therefore possible in a way that had formerly been impossible. Great roads linked the empire of the Caesars, and its diverse regions were linked far more significantly by the all-pervasive language of the Greeks. Add the fact that the world was sunk in a moral abyss so low that even the pagans cried out against it and that spiritual hunger was everywhere evident, and one has a perfect time for the coming of Christ and for the early expansion of the Christian gospel.
The myth emphasizes giving, but the truth lies in us receiving God's gift. We do not give Christmas presents to honour Jesus because the wise men gave Him gifts. Nor because this tradition of gift exchange comes mostly from the Romans, who would give one another gifts to celebrate the New Year. The truth lies in God giving us His son and we must receive Him as God's gift to us.
Because people got this around the wrong way, the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell, who knew the Scriptures, banned Christmas celebrations in 1642. In 1659, the conservative pilgrim fathers in Boston also banned all Christmas observances because wanted people to understand the truth of Christmas lay in God's gift and our responsibility is to receive Him, Christ the Lord.
MYTH 2. THE BEGINNING OF CHRISTMAS IS NOT BETHLEHEM BUT ETERNITY.
The children answered "Bethlehem" was the beginning, but Paul and John do not even mention Bethlehem. They say "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons." God sent forth His Son, who already existed! John wrote: John 1:1-3,14 "In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created. The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."
Is Christmas a Pagan holiday? Yes. Christmas has been heavily influenced by celebrations related to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which commonly falls close to December 25th. Is Christmas a Roman holiday? Yes. We find elements of our Christmas tradition that date back to celebrations honouring Roman gods. Some part of our tradition comes from the early Christians in Rome. Is Christmas an American holiday? Yes. It has become as American as Baseball, Thanksgiving, and the 4th of July.
Christmas is extremely commercial, as is befitting of our capitalistic society. You can attribute Christmas tradition to Charles Dickens, Thomas Mast, Clement C. Moor, Harper's Weekly, and Coca-Cola over the past 150 years.
Is December 25th the birthday of Jesus Christ? The truth is, we have absolutely no way of knowing when Jesus was born. We know how he was born, and we have a pretty good idea of where he was born. It was 354 AD when Bishop Liberius of Rome instituted The Feast of Nativity, which has evolved into what we now call Christmas and agreed to by Pope Julius I later as December 25th. Russian and Greek Orthodox churches continued to celebrate the same event 12 days after December 25th on January 6th, the showing forth of Jesus to the Wise Men. But Bethlehem was not the beginning. It is in Eternity. That is why the City of Sydney's street banners this year are absolutely correct with the Christmas star shining against Arthur Stace's hand-writing of "Eternity". Eternity is the timing of Christ.
Myth #3. THE CENTRE OF CHRISTMAS IS NOT SANTA BUT A SAVIOUR.
The children cried that the first thought about Christmas was "Santa". But Paul writes: "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father." So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir." A Saviour, who would release us as slaves, to make us sons and daughters of God. God sent his Son "to redeem" those who were under the law's bondage.
The centre of Christmas is the Saviour through whom God is able "to adopt" us as His children. John got it right when he wrote: John 1:9-13 "The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was created through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God."
We are redeemed and we have been adopted. Redemption means "to buy out of slavery" a slavery either to the law, as Jews, or to the elemental spirits of the universe, as Gentiles. Christ paid the price of our redemption and set us free to be adopted as children of God. We move not only from bondage into freedom, but into the very family of God where we become "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ" Romans 8:17 And who is the one through whom this great salvation comes? Not Santa. But the Saviour. It is striking how much of the important Christian teaching about Jesus is revealed in these two verses Jesus Christ is divine, God's "Son." He existed from eternity. Philippians 2:5-11; Col 1:15 He is human, for he was "born" of a woman. He was a Jew "under law" and Paul here alludes to the virgin birth: He was born "of a woman." No man was required! Because Paul traveled with Luke, who had investigated the birth stories, and learned from Mary herself the birth narrative, it is inconceivable that he would not have known of the virgin birth. But the greatest truth this entails, is that this Christmas truth does involve a "father Christmas".
The Father of Christmas is God Himself as Paul puts it: "Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, `Abba, Father.'" Paul is telling us that salvation consists in its fullness of acts by God the Father in sending both God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Moreover, this salvation is both objective and subjective. The Spirit is the gift of God to believers because they are sons and daughters of God.
How do we Christians experience the reality of the coming of Christ? Paul suggests that this is primarily through the reality of God's presence made known in prayer. Before, he was alienated from God, who indeed did not even hear him. Now, being made a member of his family, the Christian is permitted and even urged to pray, "Father" or "Abba" This was the word Jesus habitually used in his prayers to the Father which He passed on to those who became God's children.
Three great Christian truths beneath the myth of Christmas.
By Rev GORDON MOYES