The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah (the Festival of Lights) began on December 7 and will end today. It is an annual celebration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, Israel, which took place in the second century BCE (Yes! Jews were living in the land long before 1948!).
In the second century BCE, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of mitzvah observance and belief in G‑d. Against all odds, a small band of faithful but poorly armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of G‑d.1What Is Hanukkah?
It is a time of celebration – lighting the Menorah candles, singing, reading the Torah (Old Testament), reciting special prayers, partaking of special foods – and has the modern addition of gift giving.
For us, the celebration of the incarnation, more commonly known in culture as Christmas, will take place in about twelve days. The “Christmas season” kicked off in a secular way on the day after Thanksgiving with “Black Friday” sales in most retail stores. Many Black Friday shoppers participate in that sales event just for the fun of it – a group of friends get up before dawn and “storm the stores” looking for the advertised good “deals,” but many do not buy much and have fun anyway. Then, the group may go out to breakfast. Of course, one needs the stamina of youth to enjoy such an event. A few days before that, or very soon after, Christmas lights appear, lining the streets of most towns as well as brightening up many residential neighborhoods, adding to the festive feel of the season. How many people know or understand the reason for the season is, of course, anybody’s guess.
Yes, Christmas is suddenly everywhere, with all the Christmas movie favorites showing on television. Hallmark Channel and a few other channels air only Christmas movies around the clock, starting in mid-November. Christians may notice that the vast majority of these movies have nothing to do with a baby born in Bethlehem 2000+ years ago. There are plenty of magic Santas, granting the unspoken wishes of folks to show them how really blessed – or perhaps lucky – they already are, lots of angels performing helpful little miracles, lots of falling in love again with an old high school flame or an interesting newcomer, and of course the obligatory tree lighting ceremony in the center of whatever town the story is set, which everybody who is anybody attends. Sometimes in these movies, an unmarried person wakes up and finds themselves married to their childhood sweetheart, with children they don’t even know, or a married person wakes up single and alone, spouses and kids just “gone” because they had idly wondered what their life would be like if “they had not married, but had single-mindedly pursued their careers,” Most of the themes of all these feel-good movies are nothing really bad – but you’ll find very little Jesus there. The expressed meaning of Christmas is giving, family, loving others, and even “faith,” although never mentioning who their faith is in or why, but whether entertaining or not, these “feel good” themes are not the true reason for the season, are they?
Secularists in our culture are working hard, and it seems pretty effectively, to divorce Christmas from God, and especially to lose Jesus. There are the obligatory articles and documentaries on various types of “learning channels” supposedly unveiling the real story of the true Jesus, debunking the claims of God’s incarnation in the little town of Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago. A Jesus might have lived and even gathered a following, but certainly, he was not the divine Jesus of the Bible. Miracles don’t happen, do they? The idea that a supreme deity even exists is too much for most secularists to believe. And since they don’t believe it, as smart and as educated as they are, you shouldn’t believe it either.
Many in cults, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as some Christians, hold that Christmas is merely a pagan celebration having little or nothing to do with the incarnation of The Savior. The claim is that this celebration is merely the result of an apostatized church that had come to embrace the celebrations of the pagans. The Biblical Archeology Society’s take on “How December 25 Became Christmas” on their Bible History Daily weighs in on this question and seems to do a fairly balanced job on the topic. They note that the information from the first and second century on the topic is sparse:
There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130—200) or Tertullian (c. 160—225). Origen of Alexandria (c. 165—264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices – a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time. As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.
But they don’t stop there. A bit further on, we read:
Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation-the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.
Dr. Bernard Mauser at Southern Evangelical Seminary provides a fairly good and somewhat lengthy treatment of the topic in How Do We Know Christmas Is Not Pagan? It also debunks the claims of virgin birth, death, and resurrection stories of the “deities” of other faiths. Of course, there is always “Horus Ruins Christmas,” which gives the information with a touch of satire.
Biblically, it is clear in scripture that Christians have the freedom to celebrate any and all holidays – or not.
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. (Colossians 2:16)
We are not to allow ourselves to be judged on these issues nor judge others. From our point of view though, many of the objections which are raised miss the point. We do not believe it’s really about which day the incarnation occurred or the origin of particular rituals and practices, but rather, what is our heart attitude? At its core, Christmas is a reminder. It is a season of reminders, in fact. It begins as a reminder that God, the creator and sustainer of all of creation, took on weak, frail human flesh. The one Whom the Apostle Paul described in Colossians 1:15 as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” is, of course, Jesus Christ. Why was He born, and why would He die such a horrible death, taking on the sins of all of us? He did this to live a life of righteousness that we, all of us, are incapable of living so that we can be given, free of charge, the reward of His Holy Righteousness as a gift. He provided a perfect sacrifice to pay for the sins of all humanity, including you and me. His birth 2,000 years ago was the first step on the road to sacrifice by crucifixion. That is exactly what the angel said in Luke 2:10-12:
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
We see in Him the image of the invisible God. Once we are redeemed by His grace, we are to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” The gift of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection is that we who are born again should reflect the imago Dei or image of God (Colossians 3:10). And so, on this day of remembrance and celebration, we can say, along with the Apostle Paul “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15)Ω
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