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Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Talking to Family about Christmas (podcast)



"How do I share my faith better?" is a question that Christians struggle with again and again, especially when families gather for birthdays or  holidays. While Christmas may be over, our recent podcast series "Talking to Family about Christmas" offers effective ways of sharing your faith with friends and family members.  You can listen in to all four parts of this recent series here:

Image courtesy Jeffery Smith and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) License.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Big Deal Over Jesus' Birthday



Last week, I published a three-part series on why the date of Christmas is not based on Roman or pagan holidays. While the claim is popular, history argues differently. As I said there, some want to believe in the paganism aspect so they can hold onto the trappings of a secular Christmas without any charge of hypocrisy.

The reaction I received was surprising. I expected several atheists or skeptics to doubt the claim, but there were quite a lot of people who identify themselves as Christians who were deeply offended that Christmas wasn't pagan and simply didn't want to give up on the idea. They pointed to things like Christmas trees, even ripping Jeremiah 10:1-10 wholly out of context as a command not to have them! They just KNEW Christmas was pagan and they were better Christians than I was because they didn't celebrate it!

While people of the 21st century tend to reduce the celebration of an event such as Jesus's birth to "Jesus's Birthday," Christians of the fourth century had an entirely different motive. They weren't focused so much on marking a birthday as we would be, but marking a pivotal point of history: the day the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The early church wanted to celebrate the incarnation of God into man, which is precisely what Christmas was meant to do. They wanted to uphold the foundational teaching of Jesus as the God-man.

The Heresies Against Jesus's Humanity

People who are open to the evidence believe Jesus existed, even if they don't believe he was divine. Even strong critics of Christianity such as Bart Ehrman maintain that not only did Jesus exist; it is foolish to believe he was mythical. Ehrman even wrote that one shouldn't deny "what virtually every sane historian on the planet—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you—has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence. Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed."1

The bigger problem the early church faced was not as much whether Jesus lived or if he was in some way divine, but whether he was truly God and truly man at the same time. Many Gnostics taught that Jesus wasn't a physical being at all. He was a spiritual entity that would appear as physical. This view is known as Docetism, coming from the Greek word meaning "to appear."2 Interestingly, Bishop Serapion of Antioch condemns this view in a letter that is dated right at the same time Hippolytus offers the December 25th date for the birth of Christ.

The importance of celebrating Christ's entrance into the world is to recognize that Jesus who existed as God really did humble himself "being born in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:7). Jesus was a real human being in every respect, and just like all humans, he entered this world by being born. Because Jesus was born, he is considered a kinsman of Adam, and thus the only one who could redeem all of Adam's offspring from sin, as Paul explains: "For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. 15:21). The book of Hebrews agrees, stating ""Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2:17). Paul also tells Timothy "There is One God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5). We celebrate Christmas because of the miracle of God becoming man. That's a much different concept than simply having a birthday party.

The Danger Facing Christmas Today

But even if it were true that December 25 was originally a pagan holiday, that doesn't taint the holiday. Taking the date from a pagan celebration doesn't mean those celebrations are pagan any more than it means I'm honoring the Norse god Thor by writing Thursday on my checks or honoring the Roman god Juno by calling the sixth month June. The names of June and Thursday have lost all pagan value and are simply common parlance.

The real danger Christmas faces today is a similar one. We've forgotten why it is absolutely crucial to our salvation that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. Those who can rail against the pagan origins of Christmas cannot seem to see the importance of underscoring Jesus's humanity. If we dismiss Christmas altogether, we are in danger of missing part of the story of our redemption. That's something I'm not willing to throw away.

References

1. Ehrman, Bart D. "Did Jesus Exist?" The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 Dec. 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html.
2. González, Justo L., and Catherine Gunsalus. González. Heretics for Armchair Theologians. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008. Print. 37-38.
Image courtesy Plum leaves and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Monday, December 21, 2015

How Can We be Sure Where Jesus Was Born?



Most childhood plays of the Christmas story show a young Mary and Joseph wandering from house to house in Bethlehem, knocking on doors only to be met with a head shaking "no" no the other side. While there is conjecture as to whether they were turned away from an inn or simply couldn't fit in the main living quarters, the story is clearly that Mary gave birth in the town of Bethlehem.

But how certain are we that Bethlehem would truly be the location? Is it more likely Jesus was born in Nazareth and Bethlehem became a later invention? Like all historical facts, nothing is impossible but why would someone believe that Bethlehem wasn't the birthplace of Christ? The Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke are both sources close to the time they record (within one generation), and they had direct access to Jesus's brothers and Jesus's mother. They could ask them directly, which Luke states he did (Luke 1:2).

Further, there are no competing accounts of Jesus's birthplace in any historical record. In fact, as Paul L. Maier notes, even Christian artwork depicting the Nativity shows a wide array of different scenarios that reflect the culture of the artist's day, but everyone seems to agree on some kind of stable or grotto or cave where the animals were kept, just as Luke reports.

The Church of the Nativity Adds Evidence

Interestingly, Maier also believes the Church of the Nativity that thousands of pilgrims visit every year offers good evidence for Bethlehem as the location of Jesus's birth. While the ostentatiousness of its current ornamentation may be off-putting to Western Protestants today, Maier explains that one must look past the modern adornments to the historical tradition of the location itself:
Did it all really happen here—at this spot? Though final proof is necessarily lacking, the surprising answer lurks closer to probably than possibly.

Where there is no direct archaeological evidence—and there could be none in the case of the birth of Jesus—nothing is more important in establishing the authenticity of an ancient site than antiquity: the place must have been regarded as such from earliest times. If the Church of the Nativity had been built here in 600 A.D., for example, its claims to mark the authentic site of the birth of Jesus would be almost worthless. But

Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome, erected the original Church of the Nativity at this place in 326 A.D., over the very grotto that had been identified as the true site by the early church father Origen and, before him, Justin Martyr, writing in 150 A.D. Justin stated that Jesus was born in a cave that was used as a stable-not the typical stone or wooden stable so familiar in Christmas art. Earlier still, in the 130's the pagan Roman emperor Hadrian tried to desecrate the Jewish and Christian holy places in Palestine, but, ironically, thereby preserved identity!

After he had put down an insurrection by the Jewish nationalist and would-be Messiah, Bar-Kokhba, in 135 A.D., Hadrian expelled the Jews Jerusalem and paganized all known holy places of Jews and Christians, erecting a temple to Venus at the site of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and a grove dedicated to Adonis over the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

After visiting the latter in the early 200s, Origen later wrote: "In Bethlehem the grotto was shown where Jesus was born .... What was shown to me is familiar to everyone in the area. The heathen themselves tell anyone willing to listen that in the said grotto a certain Jesus was born whom the Christians revere" (Contra Celsum, i, 51).1

What Other Accounts Count?

For the Bethlehem location to have been venerated in such a noticeable way that Hadrian would intentionally destroy them in 135 means it had been recognized as such for years or even decades prior. That puts the Bethlehem grotto, like the location of Jesus's crucifixion at what is now known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on very good historical grounds. While the tomb is much more likely to be specifically known by the disciples than his birthplace, there is still both archaeological and written support for these locations.

Give the tradition of Jesus's birthplace goes back to the early second century in respect to the grotto, and back to the first century in the Gospel accounts, holding that Jesus was born in Bethlehem as opposed to elsewhere is the most reasonable belief. Dr. Maier concludes similarly, noting "Some critics doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and argue instead for Nazareth or elsewhere. Such opinions, however, are based only on scholarly conjecture, and no source has been discovered to date that disproves Jesus' birth in Bethlehem."2

Maier's point is interesting and one that happens often with those who wish to dismiss the accounts as given in the ancient sources. They offer a competing conjecture, but without a shred of evidence. Just as those who try to deny Jesus was buried in a tomb have no historical evidence for their claim, neither do those who doubt Jesus's birth at Bethlehem. It's all a lot of hand-waiving by people who wish to deny the fact that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Michah 5:2. But history argues against them.

References

1. Maier, Paul L. In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Print. 38-40.
2. Maier, 1991. 32.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas, the Solstice, and December 25th



Over the last two posts, I've explained how historical research is showing the date for celebrating Christmas was not chosen because of a Roman holiday like Saturnalia, but how the early church linked the date of Jesus's birth to the date of Jesus's crucifixion. That means Christmas is not a response to a pagan celebration such as Saturnalia but it has Christian roots.

However, Saturnalia is not the only candidate offered by critics as why December 25th was the focus of the coming of the Son of God. There is another holiday that actually occurred on December 25 mentioned in antiquity. This was the Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, translated as is the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun." It was celebrated on December 25 in 354 AD according to the calendar of Philocalus.1

The Sol Invictus cult followers worshipped the sun. Thomas Talley reports that while Emperor Aurelian did not first introduce Rome to the cult, he popularized it and the celebration day. Previously, local celebrations of Sol revolved around the dedication of the god's temples in August and/or November. In fact, the word Natalis can mean more than simply birthday, but it may also be used for the concept of an anniversary, as Roger Pearse notes:
There is also the question of what "natalis" means. It could mean birthday; but also it can mean "anniversary of the dedication of a temple". This seems to be the meaning for other "natalis" in the calendar. We know that Aurelian dedicated the temple of Sol Invictus. Thus we would get a festival on the anniversary of the dedication of the temple, and thus the idea that the festival was created at the same time by Aurelian.2
Tally tells us the "indigenous Sun cult at Rome does not seem to have been especially sensitive to the winter solstice or any other quarter days."3 Also, Steven Hijmans declares that while Aurelian set the feast, it may not have been set in December until much later:
there is no evidence that Aurelian instituted a celebration of Sol on that day [December 25]. A feast day for Sol on December 25th is not mentioned until eighty years later, in the Calendar of 354 and, subsequently, in 362 by Julian in his Oration to King Helios.4

The Roman Solstice and Who's Borrowing from Whom?

One mistake we must be careful of is placing too much emphasis on the similar sounding words "sun" and "Son." This is a common misstep for English speakers. While the Latin word for sun is "sol, the word translated son is "filius," breaking any ties to a play on words. Yet, Romans did hold to the idea that December 25 was the "birth of the Sun as the days began to noticeably get longer. Schmidt quotes Macrobius who states it was the Egyptians of the 4th or 5th century that developed the metaphor of the sun coming on the solstice as an infant and growing until the summer, where it would then shrink again as an aging man.5

Of course, all of this is well after the 202 to 211 AD mark where Hippolytus ties December 25 to Jesus's birth. If the Natalis was originally celebrated in August or October or November, why was it changed to December? One possibility is that Aurelian dedicated a new temple on that day and thus they celebrated that dedication as a feast day. Thomas Talley gives us an even more interesting possibility:
Halsberghe, without suggesting that there already was a Christian festival on December 25, presents the probability that one item in Aurelian's religious agenda was the provision of an authentically Roman alternative to the increasingly successful Christian mission.6
Of course, there's much much more, but I think you can see that the charge of Christians chose December 25 in order to "Christianize" or even just appease a pagan populous is weak at best. If you want to dig into more of the history, T.C. Schmidt's series is a great place to start, although it is only available via the internet Archive now. He summarized his findings thus:
  • Saturnalia did not occur on December 25 and had nothing to do with the birth of any god or anyone else.
  • A feast to Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) did occur on December 25, but the earliest evidence for it dates from the mid to late 4th century. There is no evidence that Emperor Aurelian established a Festival of Sol Invictus (or anyone or anything else) on December 25.
  • Egyptians apparently presented an infant as a representation of the newborn Sun on the winter solstice, but this evidence also dates from the fourth and fifth centuries.
  • Hippolytus in 202-211 AD set the date for the birth of Jesus on December 25, because he thought Jesus was conceived 9 months earlier on the Passover, the day in which he also thought the world was created (5500 years earlier), the Vernal Equinox March 25.

    Clement of Alexandria (193-215 AD) quoted various anonymous sources about the birth of Jesus and roughly agrees with Hippolytus, claiming that Jesus was born in late fall to early winter. Clement's sources clearly seem to believe that Jesus was conceived on the Passover and was born roughly 9 months later; in fact the only difference between them and Hippolytus is that they differed on when the Passover actually occurred. However there is a significant possibility that one of Clement's sources was Hippolytus himself because of the preponderance of possible dates he gives that fall on the 25th of a month (He gives 4 of them and then another date on the 24th) which corresponds with Hippolytus' belief that Jesus was both conceived, born, and executed on the 25th of a month.
7

References

1. "Part 6: The Calendar of Philocalus. Inscriptiones Latinae Antiquissimae, Berlin (1893) Pp.256-278." The Chronography of 354 AD. Trans. Roger Pearce. The Tertullian Project, 2006. Web. 18 Dec. 2015. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/chronography_of_354_06_calendar.htm.
2. Schmidt, T.C., "Antiochus of Athens and the Birth of the Sun-update." Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 28 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/antiochus-of-athens-and-the-birth-of-the-sun/
3. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. New York: Pueblo Pub, 1986. Print. 88-89.
4. Hijmans, S. E. Sol: the sun in the art and religions of Rome. 2009 Groningen: s.n. 588 quoted from T.C. Schmidt. "Sol Invictus evidently not a precursor to Christmas." Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 21 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/sol-invictus-evidently-not-a-precursor-to-christmas/
5. Schmidt, T.C., "Christmas, the Winter Solstice, and the birth of the Sun." Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 19 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/christmas-the-winter-solstice-and-the-birth-of-the-sun/
6. Talley, 1986. 89.
7. Schmidt, T.C. "Sol Invictus evidently not a precursor to Christmas." Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 21 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/sol-invictus-evidently-not-a-precursor-to-christmas/

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Date of Saturnalia Doesn't Line Up with Christmas


There is a widespread conjecture that the early Christians began celebrating Christmas on December 25 as a response to pagan Roman holidays, such as Saturnalia or the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus. Given that the Gospels do not record any date for the Nativity, choosing one would have been left to a conjecture by the early church fathers, much like an adopted orphan would have a birth date assigned to her when the actual date is unknown.

Yesterday, I demonstrated how it is more plausible to believe the church fathers chose December 25 not in response to pagan celebrations, but because of its tie in to the date of Jesus's crucifixion, which is the pivotal date of all human history in their eyes. Today, I want to look at what we know about the Roman celebrations to see if they were actually celebrated on December 25th. If they weren't, does it make sense to believe that Christmas was meant to replace them?

Roman Time and Saturnalia

Before we get into the texts discussing timing, it is important to understand how Romans referenced time. Unlike modern times, whereby we number every day, the Romans divided a month into three parts: the first of a month, known as the Kalends, the middle or Ides of a month (as in "Beware the Ides of March" from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar), and the space in between them known as the Nones. Other dates were referenced as before these three points, so the 25th of December would be eight days before the Kalends of January.1

When studying the ancient reference to Saturnalia, a primary source we have is written by the Roman Macrobius , who lived in the fifth century. His work Saturnalia provides much of the details of the origin stories of the celebration as well as its customs. Ancient texts scholar T.C. Schmidt highlighted this passage from Saturnalia Book 1, chapter 10 giving the dates of the celebration:
Our ancestors restricted the Saturnalia to a single day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, but, after Gaius Caesar had added two days to December, the day on which the festival was held became the sixteenth before the Kalends of January, with the result that, since the exact day was not commonly known—some observing the addition which Caesar had made to the calendar and others following the old usage —the festival came to be regarded as lasting for more days than one.

And yet in fact among the men of old time there were some who supposed that the Saturnalia lasted for seven days…

[But] one can infer, then, from all that has been said, that the Saturnalia lasted but one day and was held only on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of January; it was on this day alone that the shout of "Io Saturnalia" would be raised, in the temple of Saturn, at a riotous feast. Now, however, during the celebration of the Saturnalia, this day is allotted to the festival of the Opalia, although the day was first assigned to Saturn and Ops in common.2

The Addition of Sigillaria

So Saturnalia was a three-day long feast that began sixteen days before January 1st. Their December was 31 days long as is ours, so that places Saturnalia on December 17, far too early to be mistaken for December 25. However, that isn't the end of the story. Macrobius then notes that another celebration, Sigillaria was celebrated after these three days:
I think that we have now given abundant proof that the festival of the Saturnalia used to be celebrated on only one day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, but that it was afterward prolonged to last three days: first, in consequence of the days which Caesar added to the month of December, and then in pursuance of an edict of Augustus which prescribed a series of three rest days for the Saturnalia. The festival therefore begins on the sixteenth day before the Kalends of January and ends on the fourteenth, which used to be the only day of its celebration. However, the addition of the feast of the Sigillaria has extended the time of general excitement and religious rejoicing to seven days.
Schmidt in his article provided a translation of chapter ten in its entirety, as dates are referenced throughout. He then concludes:
Macrobius does an excellent job summarizing authorities that were available to him, most of which I think have been lost. His conclusion is quite clear, Saturnalia originally was one day and occurred on the 14th day before the Kalends January, but when Caesar altered the calendar it was extended to three days and started on the 16th, later a new Festival of Sigillaria extended the celebrations to complete seven days, meaning that the Festival ended on either the 10th or ninth day before the Kalends of January depending on how we count. Of course neither of these days fall on the eighth day before the Kalends of January, that is December 25.3

The Dates Don't Fit

Remember, Macrobius was writing in the fifth century AD and we have Christmas sermons from John Chrysostom preached on December 25th from a century earlier. Yet the dates don't correspond. If Christmas was create to supplant Saturnalia, the Christians would have chosen December 17th. Add to that the references I noted yesterday about the December 25th date stretching all the way back to A.D. 200 and you have a very real dating problem with Saturnalia being the origin date for Christmas.

Imagine a modern church seeking to replace Halloween celebrations by having a Harvest festival on November 8. It wouldn't work! People could celebrate one and then attend the other. The concept of substitution would be fairly ineffective.

I haven't yet discussed the one Roman holiday that actually does land on December 25, which is the Sol Invitus or "The Birth of the Unconquerable Sun." I address that particular claim in this post.

References

1. Schaff, Philip, and Henry Wace. "Table of Roman and Macedonian Months." A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church: Second Series. Vol. 1. New York: Christian Literature, 1890. 403. eBook.
2. Schmidt, T.C., "The dates of Saturnalia (and Sigillaria!) and Christmas". Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 18 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140721073230/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/the-dates-of-saturnalia-and-sigillaria-and-christmas/
3. Schmidt, 18 Dec 2010.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

No, Christmas Is Not Based on a Pagan Holiday



Christmas is a much-beloved holiday, celebrated by billions of people across the globe. In the U.S. Alone, the Pew Center reports that nearly 96% of the population celebrates Christmas, including eight out of ten non-Christians, including atheists, agnostics, and those who have no faith commitment.1 However, Christmas is also a uniquely Christian holiday; its core message is about a personal God taking humanity upon Himself and stepping into the world to redeem sinful human beings who could never redeem themselves. The Christian message is inescapable.

I believe the love of Christmas coupled with the loathing of Christianity is one reason why atheists continue to repeat the claim that Christmas is a repurposing of a pagan Roman holiday. Two of the most popular pagan holidays put forth are the celebration of Saturnalia, which honored the Roman god Saturn, or the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, that is the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun." Both of these celebrations were held in the second half of December, making them somewhat close to Christmas.

Looking at the History of Christmas

The claim that the roots of Christmas are pagan is one I hear over and over again, especially in December. The idea isn't even new. The New England Puritans, who valued work more than celebration, taught such.2 Puritan preacher Increase Mather preached that "the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that 'Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian.'"3

When one digs into the actual history however, a much different picture arises. There are two ways to approach the question: one is to see how December 25 became associated with the Nativity, which is how the early church would have referred to the day of Christ's birth. The other one is to look at the celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Either approach shows the dubious nature of the claim that Christmas has pagan roots.

Much of the thrust of the "pagan Christmas" claim rests on the idea of a Christianized Rome trying to convert a populace that wouldn't want to give up its feast traditions, akin to the practice of churches celebrating a "Harvest Festival" instead of Halloween. Yet, scholars like Yale University's T.C. Schmidt are finding the marking of December 25 to go much earlier in the Christian history.

When translating Hippolytus' Commentary on Daniel, written just after AD 200, Schmidt notes that five of the seven manuscripts contain December 25 as the date for Jesus' birth and another offers the 25th of either December or March.4 Clement of Alexandria in this same time offers the date of March 25 as the date of the incarnation, that is the conception of Jesus, in his Stromata (1.21.145-146).5 Both works tie the idea that Jesus's death would have happened on the same day as his conception.

Christmas and Easter are Linked

This is the key to the December 25th date. As Thomas Tulley works out in his book The Origins of the Liturgical Year, there was a belief within the early church that the date of the death of Jesus would also reflect either his birth or his conception.6 Augustine wrote of this, saying "For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th."7

St. John Chrysostom in his writings goes ever further by noting that the Angel Gabriel's announcement of Mary's conception happened while Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Luke 1:26). Chrysostom argues that Zechariah's service was the Day of Atonement, thus making the conception of John the Baptist happen in the fall. Add six months and Jesus's conception lands in the spring, e.g March 25. I don't know that this calculation is historically accurate, but it does show how much the early church tied the events together. The idea of randomly choosing a pagan date seems a pretty big stretch.

Here's the thing. If Christians were recognizing the birth of Christ by the beginning of the third century, does it make sense to think that this was a fourth century invention to sway the Roman populous over to Christianity? Christianity was gaining ground in the time of Clement, but it was by no means out from under the shadow of persecution. It also wasn't borrowing much from pagan customs at the time. So why believe they would do so for this date?

In order to get a fuller picture, we must look at the Roman holidays and their histories. You can read  that post here and part three is here.

References

1. Mohammed, Besheer. "Christmas Also Celebrated by Many Non-Christians." Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Dec. 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/23/christmas-also-celebrated-by-many-non-christians/.
2. Schnepper, Rachel N. "Yuletide's Outlaws." The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/opinion/the-puritan-war-on-christmas.html?_r=0
3. Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Print. 4.
4. Schmidt, T.C. "Hippolytus and the Original Date of Christmas" Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 21 Nov 2010. Web. http://web.archive.org/web/20130303163053/http://chronicon.net/blog/chronology/hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas 16 Dec 2015.
5. Schmmidt, T.C. "Clement of Alexandria and the Original date of Christmas as December 25th." Chrinicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 17 Dec 2010. Web. http://web.archive.org/web/20120822053409/http://chronicon.net/blog/hippolytus/clement-of-alexandria-and-the-original-date-of-christmas-as-december-25th/ 16 Dec 2015.
6. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. New York: Pueblo Pub, 1986. Print. 91ff.
7. Augustine of Hippo. On the Trinity, IV, 5. Logos Virtual Library. Trans. Arthur West Haddan. Darren L. Slider, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2015. http://www.logoslibrary.org/augustine/trinity/0405.html.
Image Courtesy Adam Clark and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Come Reason 2015 Ministry Report



Merry Christmas from Come Reason!

I hope you are beginning to settle in and enjoy the season of Advent. This is a special time of year, not simply because of the festivities surrounding the holidays, but because we celebrate the greatest gift, God's giving of his Son for us. What a blessing it is to recognize how a holy God would humble himself and become a man for our sakes!

 It's why this time is appropriate to reflect on all the blessings that God has bestowed upon us over the year. I wanted to do just that. God has been working mightily through the ministry in 2015. Here are just a few of the highlights:

Teaching

I had the opportunity to teach in several different areas of the country this year. Most notably, I was able to join Ratio Christi in their student symposium at Charlotte, NC to equip the student leaders of clubs in major secular universities on how to better defend their faith. I truly appreciate all Ratio Christi is doing and I look forward to many more years of ministry partnership.

The "Come Let Us Reason" monthly apologetics class entered its elevenths straight year at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside. The church has been a blessing and I invite anyone on the Southern California area to come out to this free class (with childcare!) every second Monday of the month. You can see all the upcoming classes here. I also partnered with Pastor Daniel Eichelberger of Harvest to help teach their Deepening Your Faith series on Sunday afternoons. 2016 looks like a great lineup and you may join us for that, too!

Outreaches

This year, I led a group of students from Harvest on another Apologetics Missions Trip to Berkeley, CA. The interactions were great, and the students really got to sharpen their skills while witnessing to a very lost generation. I also was able to help prepare students from Upland Christian Academy on their upcoming Missions Trip. These are a special passion of mine. If you'd like to know how your church or group can participate, contact me here.

Other outreaches included moderating Dr. Hugh Ross and Dr. Fazale Rana in a discussion at the California State University San Bernardino, meeting with Harvest's The Well Club at CSUSB, and answering questions from skeptics at Riverside Community College—not once, but on two separate occasions.

Writing and Online

My writing has been busy, especially with the daily posts at apologetics-notes.comereason.org. The blog has grown tremendously over the past year, with 50,000 visitors reading nearly 100,000 pages. Add that to the over half a million pageviews the website saw in the last year and our online  presence is making a tremendous impact in nearly every country around the world. The Come Reason Podcast has seen nearly 250,000 downloads since we began and it continues to provide fresh, relevant apologetics content every week.

On other writing projects, Sean McDowell's A New Kind of Apologist, to which I contributed a chapter, is slated to be published in March. You can pre-order copies here, and don't forget to support Come Reason Ministries by using your Amazon Smile account!

Special Changed Lives Series Dec 28-31

There are so many more things I can tell about the ministry that I simply don't have room here! That's why I will send out four special emails from December 28th through 31st. If you aren't on our e-mail list, you can sign up here.

Support

I'm thankful for all the opportunities that God has placed before this ministry; I'm even more excited for the unique things that 2016 offers—more on that next month. But I would like to ask for your support. It is your gifts that provide the income which allows me to minister in these ways. As the year ends, would you consider providing a gift to Come Reason? You may give securely online here. All gifts are tax-deducible as allowed by law. I truly appreciate it and thank you for your kindness and generosity.

Our volunteers and I want to wish you the merriest of Christmases and a blessed New Year.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Why Don't We Sing "Joseph, Did You Know?"



One of the more popular modern Christmas songs is "Mary Did You Know?" which reflects upon the ministry, miracles, suffering and sacrifice of Jesus by asking his mother if she understood just who it is she had birthed. It's touching with a tinge of sadness as the joy of a new birth is contrasted with her certain future heartache (ref. Luke 2:35). Those of us who have children of our own can especially feel the poignancy of the vulnerable baby in your arms and the dangers she faces from the world.

However, I often wonder why we don't pause to reflect more on the understanding of Joseph during this holiday season. Joseph, according to Craig Keener, was probably between the ages of eighteen to twenty years old and had the marriage arranged by his and her parents. When Joseph and Mary were betrothed, it would have been in front of two witnesses whereby Joseph declared his intent to marry the girl. This was a legally binding relationship which opened up a year-long waiting period before the wedding. 1 Keener explains:
Betrothal provided most of the legal rights of marriage, but intercourse was forbidden; Joseph is courageous to take his pregnant betrothed with him, even if (as is possible) she is also a Bethlehemite who has to return to that town. Although tax laws in most of the empire required only the head of a household to appear, the province of Syria (then including Palestine) also taxed women; but this would apply only if she owned immoveable property. Joseph may simply wished to avoid leaving her alone this late in pregnancy, especially if the circumstances of her pregnancy may have deprived her of other friends.2
The scandal of Mary's pregnancy would most likely lead people to speculate whether Mary and Joseph were improperly intimate prior to marriage or whether Mary was unfaithful to Joseph completely. Either way, it didn't make things easy for him.

Matthew reports:
Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:19-21, ESV).
Joseph's faithfulness to respond to that dream is truly courageous. I think most people would assume his desire to still marry his pregnant fiancé would imply that it was he who acted improperly and got her pregnant to begin with. The level of scandal and shame such an act would spark should not be underestimated. While Mary was faithful to the call of God, she was also visited by the angel Gabriel, given some instruction on what will happen, and even given a sign as to the truth of these things as her relative Elizabeth was pregnant even though she was past the age of childbearing. Matthew tells us that Joseph had only the dream, and his entire future was riding upon what he did with that.

Has anyone thought about what an eighteen or twenty year old male would be facing in a similar situation? Most young men this age are dreaming of a particular type of future: independent, stable, with a wife who loves him and children of his own. Add to that the fact that Joseph came from the royal line of David, he should have been in a position of comfort and power. That wasn't to be, but knowing how young men think, I'm sure he had dreams of creating a good, stable life for himself and his family.

However, given that Mary's first child would not be his progeny and she became pregnant even before marriage, his future is on a decidedly different track. He took Mary with him on the journey to Bethlehem, possibly to protect her and help her since the odds were out of her favor in the town where they both lived. A stigma of immorality would continue throughout their lives, even following Jesus as the Pharisees alluded to his illegitimacy (John 8:41). Yet, Joseph took the road of self-denial and self-sacrifice. This young man exemplified true virtue in standing beside Mary.

We don't know when and how Joseph died. Given Jesus's charge of his mother to the apostle John in John 19:26, it is assumed that Joseph has already passed away. We read no more about him after the birth narratives. But it would do us well to reflect upon Joseph's stand. This is a model of what a virtuous man looks like. We need to underscore it for the young people in our churches today. Would there be more Josephs in the world.

References

1. Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993. Print. 48.
2. Keener, 185.
Image courtesy Gabriel Sozzi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Illogic of Atheist Christmas Billboards

It's that time of year again; Christmas is coming. You will see all kinds of people decorating their homes, shopping for presents, and attending company parties as they do every year. Another yearly event now seems to be the anti-theist billboards put up by groups like the American Atheists. Fox 21 reported on the billboards appearing on Interstate 25 in Colorado Springs. They carry the message "Go ahead and skip church! Just be good for goodness sake. Happy holidays!"1 Here's an example:



What should Christians make of these billboards? Is it an attack on Christianity? It clearly holds a message contrary to Christian teaching, but the American Atheists claim they aren't trying to undermine Christmas. According to the channel, American Atheists spokesman Randy Gotovich said "We're trying to be inclusive of everyone in Christmas and saying that anyone can celebrate it. It shouldn't be viewed strictly as a Christian holiday."2

What?

Perhaps Gotovich missed the common referent in the words Christ mas and Christian—the word Christ. While people who are not devout or even Christians may celebrate Christmas, the concept of Christmas falls apart without Christ. The holiday makes no sense. The refrain of "Peace on earth, good will toward men" is a call for every human being to replicate the selflessness and mercy that God showed by sending his son to save sinners. That's why taking the entire quote of Luke 2:14 is important: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" (ESV). Only in the Christian worldview does this kind of selflessness make sense. It certainly doesn't work in a world based on survival of the fittest.

Gotovich's statement unwittingly displays something. Atheists ideals cannot exist on their own. Imagine if the American Atheists were more honest and sought to abolish Christmas entirely. Why not say, "We don't need this holiday infused at every turn with religious implications and mythicism. We have Darwin Day. Let's celebrate that instead." How many followers do you think they would attract?

The Confused Message of "Be Good for Goodness' Sake"

Instead of promoting atheism by its own virtues, the American Atheists want to keep Christmas, but corrupt it. AA President David Silverman tried to redefine the holiday on their website by saying "The things that are most important during the holiday season—spending time with loved ones, charity, and being merry—have nothing to do with religion."3 Again, what? Where did he get that from?

First off, ideas like spending time with loved ones should not be seasonal. Charity and altruism are good things. But atheists don't think so if the altruism carries religious implications. In instances such as those, they'd rather shut down food pantries than allow a church the freedom to help the needy.

But the biggest problem with the billboard is whose idea of "being good" is being adopted here? What standard or scale are the atheists using to weigh whether an action is in itself good or bad? They obviously believe that skipping church is a good thing and going to church is a bad thing. But what if they're wrong on that point? Then how can they "be good for goodness' sake" when telling someone to skip church, which is bad?

When the atheists borrowed that line from the song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," they misrepresented it. The line is using "for goodness' sake" as an emphatic device, just as you might hear a mother say while scolding her son, "Why do you have to take your brother's toys? For goodness' sake, you have plenty of your own to play with!" By changing the meaning to try and make it say that goodness has its own ontology, that is that goodness exists outside of anything else, they beg the question.

One cannot be good for goodness' sake without knowing first what defines goodness. And therein lies the problem. Atheism has no grounding for goodness. There is nothing to give their pronouncements about what is good or bad any value at all. Everything becomes subjective, like Silverman's claim that "being merry" is an important holiday value. Being merry is nice, I guess, but it isn't a virtue. All it takes to be merry is an open bar at the company Christmas party.

Without the transcendent source of God to anchor goodness, there is no way anyone can be good for the sake of goodness alone. Where does one start? By seeking to leverage the inherently religious principles of Christmas (in which God establishes the foundation of sacrificial love) to try and undermine the practice of religion, the American Atheists have set up a contradiction.

Let them present their own worldview. Let them hold their own holidays. For goodness' sake, why do they keep trying to take the Christian ones? That's simply naughty.

References

1. Fisher, Kody. "Controversial Billboards along I-25." FOX21Newscom. KXRM-TV, 07 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. http://fox21news.com/2015/12/07/controversial-billboards-along-i-25/.
2. Fisher, 2015.
3. "Santa Says ‘Just Skip Church' in Atheists' Holiday Billboards." American Atheists. American Atheists, 7 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. http://news.atheists.org/2015/12/07/santa-says-just-skip-church-in-atheists-holiday-billboards/.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Make #MerryChristmasStarbucks Truly Meaningful

It seems the new Starbucks holiday cups are causing a bunch of Christians to see red. As first reported by the Breitbart website, the 2015 holiday cup design went with a minimalist approach, simply using a red cup with no markings other than the Starbucks logo. This is a deviation from past years where the cups featured pictures of snowmen, tree ornaments, reindeer, carolers, and snowflakes. Some immediately took the new design as a slap at Christmas. Breitbart quotes British Parliament member David Burroughs as saying, "The Starbucks coffee cup change smells more of political correctness than a consumer-led change. The public has a common sense grasp on the reality that at Christmas time, whether you have a Christian faith or not, Britain celebrates Christmas."1

Other Christians soon jumped on the bandwagon, wishing to present the cup as the latest salvo in the War on Christmas, an activity which seems to have become as much a tradition in Christian circles as Wal-Mart unveiling decorations in their stores two weeks before Halloween. One person even created a video where he "tricks" Starbucks employees into writing Merry Christmas on their cups by giving the phrase as his name when ordering.

I'm not certain such a move will cause Starbucks VPs to sit in a conference room and exclaim "Sneaky little hobbitses. Wicked, tricksy, false!" Yet, the claims of "anti-Christian" are being passed around the Internet faster than you can brew a Tall espresso, with cries of boycotts for Starbucks removing the Christian faith from Christmas. At the same time, mainstream outlets are providing additional high visibility with their stories like this one that point and mock, essentially stating, "Look at these stupid people! Aren't Christians out of touch?"

It's Not Surprising that Secular Companies Act in Secular Ways

Let's all take a breath, shall we? First, the cups. I'm not certain how having a plain red cup makes Starbucks any more anti-Christian than snowmen. Do snowflakes and reindeer signify the incarnation or are they neutral images that even atheists can use to decorate their homes? The reality is Starbucks wants people—Christians and everyone else—to get into the holiday spirit because Starbucks can sell more stuff and make more money that way. That's why they sell an Advent calendar (albeit disemboweling the word advent its meaning.) You don't need Christmas to learn that Starbucks is a secular company; their political positions demonstrate that. They commercialize Christmas because they are interested in the commercial benefits, just like almost every retail store you will come across. Plain red cups are not the issue here.

Secondly, while the corporation may be driven by the almighty dollar instead of almighty God, it doesn't mean the barista behind the bar holds those same opinions. I know Starbucks managers and baristas who love the Lord with all their hearts while working for Starbucks. You may even hear them tell you "Merry Christmas" if you gave them a chance.

Looking to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

Third, I think the complaint about the cups does the very thing that the Christians are supposedly rallying against: it trivializes the coming of Jesus by reducing such a monumental event of history to printing on a cup that will end up in the trash twenty minutes after it is presented. Do we need Christmas cups to celebrate God's gift of the Messiah to mankind? By winning the cup battle, will any more people come to know and trust in Jesus? How does this help our witness?

Let's face it, the early church celebrated the advent of Christ not by demanding that Roman merchants write it on their bags, but by telling others why the event is celebrated at all. Yes, Christmas is a Christian holiday; it always has been. Don't let talk of Saturnalia fool you. There is no historic support for the idea that Christmas was invented as an alternative to a pagan festival. Because it is a Christian celebration, it's OK to wrap yourself in all the traditions and trappings. But for those who are not Christian perhaps asking them why Christmas is such an important holiday would be a better approach than railing against them not having decorated enough.

How well can you explain the importance of Christmas? Are you equipped and ready to tell others why it means so much to you? Are you ready to say the Savior's coming is exciting because you desperately needed saving? By protesting and boycotting instead of changing minds and possibly changing hearts, Christians further alienate Christianity from the greater society, ironically strengthening the very problems they are complaining about.

Don't wait for Starbucks to say Merry Christmas to you; you need to tell those at Starbucks "Merry Christmas; and here's why it's indeed merry…"

References

1. Hallett, Nick. "MPs, Christian Groups Slam Starbucks 'Scrooges' Over Red Cups." Breitbart News. Breitbart News Network, LLC, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 09 Nov. 2015. http://www.breitbart.com/london/2015/11/05/mps-christian-groups-slam-starbucks-scrooges-over-red-cups/.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday? (Podcast)

Every Christmas and Easter the charge is made that these holidays were originally pagan celebrations that Christians usurped for their own purposes. Is this true? Are Christmas and Easter nothing more than an attempt to convert unbelievers by allowing them to keep their festivals? As the holiday season approaches, we'll show why such a charge can be easily dismissed.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Enjoy the Trappings of Christmas



Merry Christmas! I hope you have a chance to celebrate the day today. It's easy to see all the commercialism, the merchandising of a sacred remembrance, and resent buying gifts or gathering to spend time with extended family. It's even easy to think that the trees, presents, and decorations distract us from the real reason for Christmas, that is the coming of Jesus. But that isn't true. Just as the solemnity of bonding two people together is followed by a celebration, so to should the joining of holy God with human flesh be recognized. That isn't my idea; Saint Augustine preached on it over 1500 years ago:1
That day is called the birthday of the Lord on which the Wisdom of God manifested Himself as a speechless Child and the Word of God wordlessly uttered the sound of a human voice. His divinity, although hidden, was revealed by heavenly witness to the Magi and was announced to the shepherds by angelic voices. With yearly ceremony, therefore, we celebrate this day which saw the fulfillment of the prophecy:
  • "Truth is sprung out of the earth: and justice hath looked down from heaven." 2
  • Truth, eternally existing in the bosom of the Father, has sprung from the earth so that He might exist also in the bosom of a mother.
  • Truth, holding the world in place, has sprung from the earth so that He might be carried in the hands of a woman.
  • Truth, incorruptibly nourishing the happiness of the angels, has sprung from the earth in order to be fed by human milk.
  • Truth, whom the heavens cannot contain, has sprung from the earth so that He might be placed in a manger.
For whose benefit did such unparalleled greatness come in such lowliness? Certainly for no personal advantage, but definitely for our great good, if only we believe. Arouse yourself, O man; for you God has become man. "Awake, sleeper, and arise from among the dead, and Christ will enlighten thee."3 For you, I repeat, God has become man.
  • If He had not thus been born in time, you would have been dead for all eternity.
  • Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, if He had not taken upon Himself the likeness of sinful flesh.
  • Everlasting misery would have engulfed you, if He had not taken this merciful form.
  • You would not have been restored to life, had He not submitted to your death; you would have fallen, had He not succored you; you would have perished, had He not come.
Let us joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festal day on which the great and timeless One came from the great and timeless day to this brief span of our day.
So, give voice to the joy that we have in the Savior's arrival. Enjoy your holiday and I wish you a very Merry Christmas!

References

1. The text of Augustine's sermon #185 has been reformatted by me. The translation is taken from "For The Feast Of The Nativity: Sermon 185." Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons. Trans. Sister Mary S. Muldowney. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1959. 6-7. Print.
2. Ps. 84.12
3. Eph. 5.14.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Why It Must Be a Manger

In our house, the manager of our nativity set stays empty until Christmas eve, when we place the baby Jesus there. We used to have a nativity that was ceramic and hand made by my mother. Jesus couldn't be removed. But when my kids were born, they were fascinated by the set and wanted to play with the people. Rather than forbidding such curiosity, we encouraged it by buying a molded rubber set where they couldn't break the figures.



One of the outcomes of that choice was a couple family traditions that developed. First, the Wise Men were placed at the back of the house and traveled through each child's room before arriving in "Bethlehem" on Christmas Eve. (Yes, I know this isn't historically accurate, but it serves to make the point to the young audience.) Secondly, the baby Jesus is hidden and doesn't get placed in the manger until we ask one of the kids to do it on Christmas day.

The act of placing Jesus in the manger offers all kinds of opportunities for discussion. Have you ever wondered why Luke makes the point of saying that Jesus's first bed was a manger? There are at least three reasons that I can think of to show why the manger is important.

The Manger Links Jesus to All Men

Scholars like Ben Witherington tell us that Bethlehem was most likely too small to have a formal inn. The word used for inn is the Greek katalyma which is translated "guest chamber" and could be used for a guest room as well. Jesus sent his disciples to find a katalyma to eat the Passover meal in Mark 14:14. Given that Bethlehem was the family home of Joseph, they most likely stayed in a relative's house, but with so many relatives showing up, they would be relegated to the larger open room attached to the house where people would bring their animals in for the night.1

This would instantly make Jesus relatable to shepherds. Shepherds themselves were not thought of highly in Jewish culture, and to see the Savior of the world in the very tool they themselves used to feed their livestock symbolized that this King of Israel was for all mankind. No rank or provide bars access to the lord. He has come for anyone who would seek him.

The Manger Shows Jesus's Humility

Secondly, and perhaps most obviously, the humble beginnings of Jesus in the manger shows the very attitude of Jesus in becoming incarnate. Philippians 2:5-8 describes the incarnation this way:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
That attitude persisted even through Jesus's adult life. He remained poor, and eschewed material comforts, saying The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." (Luke 9:58, NASB).

The Manger Shows Jesus as the Bread of Life

Lastly, the manger is a crucial symbol of Jesus as the one upon who we rely for our existence. Mangers are feeding toughs; from them an animal receives its nutrition. Jesus frequently compared himself to our sustenance, saying "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh" (John 6:51). Even in establishing the communion service, Jesus equated the bread to his own body. The first thing done to the body of the baby Jesus is to lay it in a manger. Thus, by that very act he is shown to be real food for the whole world.


References

1 Witherington, Ben. "No Inn in the Room-- a Christmas Sermon on Lk. 2.1-7." Ben Witherington. Ben Witherington, 9 Dec. 2007. Web. 24 Dec. 2014. http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/12/no-inn-in-room-christmas-sermon-on-lk_09.html .

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

You Just Might Be Celebrating a Japanese Christmas

To look at it, Christmas in Japan looks pretty Western. There are Christmas trees, lights, and even pictures of Santa adorning windows. There are some differences, of course. Christmas cake is ubiquitous and you may be a bit disturbed to discover that what you thought was a statue of Santa was actually Colonel Sanders decked out in a red Santa outfit. It seems that many Japanese think a proper Christmas dinner centers around a bucket of KFC. But, such are the quirks of a holiday spread across the globe. Cultures will interpret the joy of celebrating Christ's coming in their own ways, right?



Except the Japanese don't. Japan is a country that is only about 1% Christian, according to the Pew Forum1. Christmas isn't an officially recognized holiday at all; children still attend school and businesses are open (especially KFC!) Yet, the trappings of a Western tradition are there. So, why do the Japanese get into the decorations and the trees at all? It seems those Christmas cakes provide some good insight into the motivations for the Japanese celebration.

Pre-World War II Japan didn't have a lot of exposure to Christians. The Roman Catholic Church had sent missionaries to the island in 1549where they "soon established churches, hospitals, orphanages and educational institutions, which became venues whereby the two cultures could encounter one another."2 Yet, crushing martyrdoms and extended persecutions left Japan with only a sliver of Christian believers who were forced underground for centuries.3 The nation was still feudal and agrarian, with only the elites having the wealth for indulgence. Cultural scholar Hideyo Konagaya states that "Modernity and affluence in Christmas were still not a realistic notion when rural lives and feudalistic social systems still predominated."4

Christmas as Affluence

After World War II, things were worse. According to an NPR article, the economy was a disaster. People there did whatever they could to make ends meet, but luxuries such as sugar or chocolate were in short supply. However, US soldiers often had candy bars they distributed to children.5 Konagaya writes, "Sweet chocolates, above all, given by American soldiers epitomized the utmost wealth Japanese children saw in American lives. They brought the message that affluence and happiness took American forms (Fujiwara)."6 Cake had also been previously linked to western affluence and it was "available exclusively to the upper aristocratic class or urban elite."7

However, as Japan's economy recovered and then boomed in the 1980's, "Christmas celebrations gave the Japanese the most tangible pictures that could convey images of prosperous modern lives in America" and the cake was the epitome of that symbol of success."8 Today, young urban Japanese see Christmas Eve not as a day to celebrate at home with family, but as an upscale night on the town where tangible gifts to your beloved are expected.

Sometimes a Mirror is Uncomfortable to See

While the Japanese interpretation of Christmas may seem remote, I think Konagaya was right when noting that the Japanese were simply trying to mimic American values and traditions. They saw the commercialism, the emphasis on stuff, the weight we placed on the trappings of the day and presented all of that without any of the spiritual root that should be the focus of Christmas. Was something lost in the translation? Perhaps. Yet, an imperfect mirror will distort an image but it can highlight flaws you hadn't noticed before.

We need to make sure in our Christmas celebrations that Jesus is the central focus for the day. The Japan Times noted this conversation where a Japanese woman enquired about the origin of Christmas from an American man:
Young Japanese woman: Is Christmas celebrated to mark the birth of Jesus or his death?
American man: Do people usually go shopping before a funeral?
At least she knows it has something to do with Jesus!

When my kids were young, we used cake to celebrate Christmas as well. It wasn't a Japanese Christmas cake; it was a birthday cake. We had a plastic Nativity set that the kids could play with. We would set the Wise Men figures at the back of the house and the kids would move them each day until their journey was complete on Christmas Eve. We would also hide the baby Jesus figure until Christmas morning. Later that day, we'd decorate the cake with birthday candles and everything. It isn't much, but these traditions put the emphasis back on the coming of Jesus instead of the coming of presents.

I pray that you and your family will emphasize the amazing gift of the Savior, of God with Us, this Christmas. Make sure that your outward celebrations show that aspect of the holiday. After all, you never know who's watching.

References

1. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, comp. "Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Christian Population." PewForum.org. Pew Research Center, Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. http://www.pewforum.org/files/2011/12/Christianity-fullreport-web.pdf 2. Hull, Simon. "Christian Heritage of Japan." The Japan Times. Japan Times Ltd., 04 Aug. 2014. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/08/04/commentary/world-commentary/christian-heritage-japan.
3. Hull, 2014.
4. Konagaya, Hideyo. "The Christmas Cake: A Japanese Tradition of American Prosperity." The Journal of Popular Culture 34.4 (2001): 121-36. Web.
5. Bruzek, Alison. "Japan's Beloved Christmas Cake Isn't About Christmas At All." NPR. NPR, 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/12/16/369830094/a-christmas-cake-that-isn-t-about-christmas-at-all.
6. Konagaya, 2001. 122.
7. Konagaya, 2001. 122.
8. Konagaya, 2001. 123.
Image courtesy Catherine and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A (Not Too) Serious Christmas Quiz

With Christmas rapidly approaching, mainstream media fills its coffers with tales of how Jesus never existed or why the traditional Christmas tale cannot be believed.  Therefore, I think it’s time for another of my a bit tongue-in-cheek quizzes, this time focusing on Christmas and its history. For previous quizzes, check here and here.


  1. It’s believed that early Christians began celebrating Christmas on December 25 because:
    1. If it was any earlier, stores would be hanging Christmas decorations right after the Fourth of July.
    2. Given the complexity of assembling bikes and wagons, it needed to be one of the longest nights of the year.
    3. They followed a tradition that Jesus’ death (thought to be on March 25 AD 30) would also be the anniversary of His conception.
    4. Only those crazy Orthodox Christians want to hear Perry Como and Bing Crosby after the New Year begins.
  2. How do we know that the Magi did not show up until up to two years after Jesus’ birth?
    1. Because they’re men and they would have never asked for directions.
    2. Because Matthew 2:11 describes Jesus and Mary now living in a house, and after Herod “determined from them the exact time the star appeared” gave an edict to kill all male children two years and younger.
    3. It took them that long to wrap the gifts.
    4. The roads from Mesopotamia to Jerusalem are always jammed with holiday traffic.
  3. The accomplishments of the real St. Nicholas, who lived in the 4th century, include:
    1. His later life in politics running against Burgermeister Meisterburger.
    2. Being a true proto-hipster and ushering in the beard-cult.
    3. Inspiring Nicholas Cage’s parents with an Internet-meme worthy name.
    4. Attending the Council of Nicea and supporting the full divinity and humanity of Jesus, even to the extent of purportedly punching the heretic Arius in the face.
  4. The Immaculate Conception refers to:
    1. The Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary was conceived without original sin in order to bear the savior.
    2. A new brand of cleaning product.
    3. A brilliant idea for a concept car… and definitely NOT the clay model of the AMC Pacer or Gremlin.
    4. No-mess adoption.
  5. Bible scholars believe that since Bethlehem was such as small town, Jesus was most likely not born in a cave but in a back room of a relative’s home. The misconception stems from:
    1. The Greek word katalyma which is translated “guest chamber” and could be used for a guest room or an Inn. It was also used in Mark 14:14 when Jesus sent his disciples to find a place to eat the Passover meal.
    2. The need to give the kids who cannot act but only shake their heads “no” some kind of part in the Christmas play.
    3. How dumb our Nativity scenes would look if an angel was perched on the roof next to a television antenna.
    4. No one wanted their relatives to think that extended stays are somehow Biblical.
  6. The Christmas phrase “Peace on Earth, Good will towards Men” refers to:
    1. A misogynistic greeting that has no place in our cis-gendered society.
    2. What you tell the store clerk when you’re trying to return that ugly sweater without a receipt.
    3. God’s goodwill act of providing His Son as the way men could have peace with Him.
    4. An archaic greeting which has been replaced by the now more popular “Keep the change, ya filthy animal!”
  7. The practice of abbreviating Christmas as “Xmas” began because:
    1. Large X’s would be placed on children’s back fences, serving as targets for their Red Ryder BB Guns.
    2. It’s how people were crossed off the pot luck list if they ever showed up with a fruitcake.
    3. Because people come into Christmas day eXhausted with their cash eXtinguished.
    4. The X is not crossing out Jesus, but it represents the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter for the Greek word Christ (Χριστοζ).
  8. Early Church Father Tertullian taught that the Magi were instructed to leave “by another way” because:
    1. Holiday traffic would be a killer.
    2. They wanted to see the Dead Sea and maybe pick up some souvenirs at the gift shop.
    3. Given their reliance on astrology and magic, the command symbolized God telling them to change their superstitious belief system.
    4. They had a booking to perform a magic show for a Bar-Mitzvah in Joppa.
  9. The 12 Days of Christmas refers to:
    1. Proof that any gift larger than “five golden rings” is completely unmemorable.
    2. The twelve days beginning Christmas Day and ending January 6 at the Feast of the Epiphany, where some Christians have historically given gifts.
    3. How long it feels waiting in line to purchase those gifts the last days before Christmas.
    4. Each of the days network television will air It’s A Wonderful Life.
  10. The Virgin birth is central to the Christmas story because:
    1. It fulfilled the prophecies given of the Messiah in Gen 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14.
    2. It’s the only time the sermon of the real Parson Brown is more interesting than that of the snowman Parson Brown.
    3. It gives those folks at the Discovery Channel a chance at another “documentary” seeking to debunk something.
    4. Mary saturated everyone’s Instagram and Facebook timelines with baby pictures.
Answers:  1:C,   2:B,  3:D,  4:A,  5:A,  6:C,  7:D,  8:C,  9:B,  10:A

Image from A Christmas Story © 1983 Warner Bros. Movies. Used in accordance with fair use.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How Can I Celebrate Peace on Earth With Tragedy In My Life?

This past week, the headlines have been especially horrifying. A crazed terrorist takes hostages in a Sydney chocolate shop, killing two people including a woman shielding a pregnant woman from the gunman. The Taliban kills nearly 130 school children in Pakistan. How can the promise of Christmas, the season of peace on earth and goodwill towards men be realized with such evil going on?


Actually, the question isn't new. In a Huffington Post article entitled "Whatever Happened to 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men'?" Robert Fuller said that he wondered the same thing even as a child:
My take-away questions from Sunday School were:
  • Why are moral precepts—even those that everyone accepts—widely ignored?
  • Why has "peace on Earth, goodwill toward Men" not been realized?
I wondered about this gap between the ideal and the reality as World War II raged, as the Holocaust was revealed, and as Japan surrendered to American atom bombs. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that religion's most serious short-coming was not that it harbored "deniers" of well-established science models, but that it had not found a way to realize its own aspirational goals.1

Looking For Candy Canes in Coal Mines

I think that a lot of people feel the same way as Robert. They watch the various Christmas specials, they see the slogans painted on storefront windows, yet they think that the Christmas promise of peace and goodwill is just as illusory as the story of a jolly old elf sliding down your chimney. But these folks are starting in the wrong spot. They're like people who shop for stocking stuffers in a coal mine. You'll never find toys and candy there. The reality is that this world is fallen. It's filled with men who are corrupted by sin and if left to themselves would never seek peace with one another.

But that's exactly why the Christmas message is so joyful. God hasn't left us to ourselves; He sent His only Son to earth to save us from our fate. In announcing the birth of Jesus, the angels weren't asking human beings to be nice to one another. They were announcing that God has provided a way for peace between Himself and mankind. God was exhibiting goodwill toward men in giving them a Savior. See how Luke 2:14 is rendered in different translations:

Translations of Luke 2:14

New International Version Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.
New Living Translation Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.
English Standard Version Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!
New American Standard Bible Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.
King James Bible Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Holman Christian Standard Bible Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!
NET Bible Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!

As you can see, the responsibility is God's and the action is towards mankind. That's why Christians should celebrate Christmas even during the most difficult of circumstances. I know it can be hard to feel the Christmas spirit when the bills are piling, health is threatened, or tragedy is pushing in all around you. Yet, Christmas proves that God has better plans for us. Perhaps we won't see that this year, or even the next. Our hope lies ultimately in our destiny where God will "wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away" (Rev 21:4, ESV). That hope began by lying in a manger in Bethlehem and was proven on Calvary's cross.

I feel sorry for folks like Robert Fuller. He thinks that Christianity fails because we aren't getting any better. (Actually, Christianity has dramatically improved the lot of humanity in demonstrable ways.)But the promise of a world of peace and goodwill isn't found by those who work for it. It has been offered as a free gift to those who believe on Him who God has sent (John 3:16, Romans 10:9). Unless you claim that gift, Christmas will always be a disappointment.

References

1. Fuller, Robert. "Whatever Happened to 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men'?" The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 09 July 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-fuller/whatever-happened-to-peace-on-earth-goodwill-toward-men_b_1644922.html.
Image courtesy John and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Date of Christmas has Nothing to Do with Pagan Holidays (video)



Is Christmas really just a repackaging of a Roman Feast? Two Roman celebrations, Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, were celebrated in December. However, that doesn't mean that Christians used those dates to create a holiday of their own. In this short excerpt, Lenny demonstrates how December 25 has its origin in a Christian tradition and why it makes no sense to think that early Christians were trying to come up with their own alternative to pagan holidays.




You can watch the entire lecture here.
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