The Glory of Christ at Christmas
December 22, 2014
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
<![CDATA[Some years ago now when the “Christmas” debate first began, I preached a sermon series around the holidays called “Making the holidays holy-days.” The point I was making, which seemed intrinsically ironic to me, was that those who passionately advocated for renaming the season “holidays” were not really accomplishing what they hoped they were accomplishing. The word “holiday” has a particular historical etymology. It is rooted in the Medieval European habit of naming certain days as “high days and holy days.” They were days marked by particular saints, and on those days there were special religious ceremonies, and feasting as appropriate and particular to the occasion as it demanded. In other words, “holidays” is a distinctly Christian, religious term. When you say “happy holidays,” you are really saying “happy Christian religious season of feasting and merriment based upon these holy days that we are in right now.” I understand that when people use that term today they are unlikely to be aware of the root of the meaning, so I didn't belabor the point in the sermon series, rather calling all of us – whatever our religious background – to make the most of the season by celebrating in a real kind of sweet holiness. You’d have to ask the hearers whether it was an effective series or not. Whatever you like to call this time of year – holidays, Christmas – in the West we are in the middle of a season that for a long, long time has been shaped by deeply Christian virtues. Picky antiquarians will point out that we are far from certain that Jesus was actually born in the winter (shepherds were unlikely, they say, to be watching their flocks at night outside in the fields in winter), and some will even say that really this was a midwinter festival taken over by the church. Whether or not either of those statements is true is, to my point, irrelevant. It is quite possible, even likely, that the church at some juncture decided to use the winter season tendency of people everywhere to need some sort of celebration and mark it with something more healthy than drunken debauchery – and started to hold religious services (a “mass”), at which the high point was the Christ-Mass (or Christmas). This is for obvious missionary strategic reasons. People need to celebrate. It is part of the human condition. Okay, fine, but let’s celebrate something truly worth celebrating, namely Jesus. For similar reasons, in the part of the world where at least a section of my ancestors originated, you can find a famous, now ruined and derelict, ancient church atop a rather dramatic hill sticking out of the plains all around. This is called the Glastonbury Tor, and now there is debate as to whether it, in days before the Christians came there, used to be a pagan center on the hill. Nothing is more likely, and that is why the church put a church on it instead. The real issue is not about dating, or what came first – all sidetracks and distractions – but about what is truly worth celebrating. This is why a passage like Colossians 1:15-23 is so worth reflecting on at Christmas, even if it is not an obvious Christmas-narrative-baby-and-angels kind of Bible passage. I’ll quote the main section (though I reference until verse 23 because that shows that Paul has in mind the necessity of a personal response to this vision of the glory of Christ):
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1:15-20).This is a magisterial vision of the identity of Jesus Christ. Similarly, John writes (in more typically “Christmas” vein):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.…The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-3, 14).This Jesus is the very glory of God. Listen to Philippians:
Who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:6-11).I quote these texts regarding the humble glory of Jesus because it gives us a renewed sense of the one we celebrate. With the glory of Christ in mind, debates about what we call the season become less important. After all, the Puritans objected to the term “Christmas” too – granted, for very different reasons than contemporary secularists. They felt that “Christmas” was too reminiscent of unhealthy pagan-like festivities, and it would be better if we ditched the whole thing and emphasized Christ all year round. Anyone who has been to a typical Christmas office “party” will have sympathy with them, not to mention with Scrooge. That said, though, once, instead, we fill our minds, hearts, and our vision with the glory of Christ – the very nature of God, the Word made flesh, the image of the invisible God – then celebration at Christmas, as well as any other time time, is the nearly inevitable result. I say “nearly” for what celebration means to one person will be different from another. But some form of merriment, rejoicing, is difficult for even the most taciturn to avoid when they see glory. Whether it is the glory of a touchdown in football, a goal in football or soccer, a slam dunk in basketball, a home run in baseball, a six in cricket, or top score in an exam. Yes, we shout! Glory! If we are going to put Christ back into Christmas, let’s also put the glory back in it, too. by Josh Moody]]>
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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