Everyone has Christmas traditions. Growing up, one that I had was to watch the 1984 version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with George C. Scott (which is still the best film adaption of the story, IMHO). The story is emotionally compelling, and each time I watched it I would pray that I would be a better person and not like Ebenezer Scrooge. Eventually I went to college and began my adult life and that tradition fell by the wayside. Decades later, however, in researching the origins of our celebration of Christmas, I came to realize that much of what we today associate with the holiday does not have roots in antiquity, as commonly thought, but in a re-imagined reinvention of the holiday during Victorian times, catalyzed by Dickens’ 1848 short story. Romantic sentimentality, Christmas cards, and gift giving—and with those things, the accompanying commercialization—are not later corruptions from the twentieth century but original features from the nineteenth. A Christmas Carol is a gospel of moralism, of how one man decided to become a good man by changing his will; the real Gospel is one of how God’s only begotten son attained forgiveness and mercy for a stubborn and resistant people. These are different stories.
For me, such a realization necessitated some rethinking of our observance of Christmas. If the commercialization of the holiday is a feature and not a flaw, Christmas really is all about the gifts. We may make a passing reference to Jesus being the reason for the season, but the real focus is on “What did I get?” As long as gift giving is at the center of the holiday, it will be commercialized. If we are really going to observe the Lord’s Nativity, however, and not just invoke that as an excuse running up the credit cards, then the two need to be separated. What my wife and I have started to do in the last few years is push the gift giving aspect off from Christmas day to some point closer to New Year’s, using Christmas proper as a time of family worship and rest. We are not great at family worship, but we are trying to be more consistent, and on Christmas, I do try to do something a little more formal in terms of selecting appropriate readings for my wife and I to go through. For those who may find it interesting and useful, I have attached our notional family worship outline for this Christmas.
Christmas—and really Adventide more broadly—should be a season for remembering the First Coming of the Lord while we await His Second Coming. Accordingly, in this worship outline, I have included the prayer of adoration is from a great little book on Puritan prayers called The Valley of Vision and regards Christ’s Second Coming. His First Coming resulted in our reconciliation to the Father and the restoration of our communion with Him; Christ’s Second Coming will fulfill the expectations God’s people have had from antiquity of a Final Judgment, a Final Vindication, and a Final Consummation. That is what we are still looking forward to. But as we look forward to this, we must also look back. The New Testament reading from Hebrews captures the purpose of Christ’s First Coming. The confessional reading, from the Westminster Confession of Faith, is a beautifully succinct summary of what we as Christians are to believe about the Person of Christ Jesus.
The centerpiece of this time of worship is a sermon from Leo the Great, the bishop of Rome (i.e., the Pope) from AD 440-461. Christmas today is shrouded with schmaltzy sentimentality, but it is important for us to remember what it is really about. The miracle is not about a baby in a manger; it is about God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, becoming incarnate as man. The first clear observance of the Feast of the Nativity—the proper name for Christmas—is in AD 380, when it was celebrated in Constantinople, then the capital of the Roman Empire. The celebration came after a long and bitter fight within the Christian Church to uphold the truths about the Trinity summarized in the Nicene Creed. In the Arian controversy of the fourth century preceding that worship service in Constantinople, orthodox Christians stood steadfast in affirming the truth of the Trinity, that is, that there is one God in three Persons, equal in power, substance, and eternity. In the decades that followed, the Church had to wrestle with a follow-on controversy in how to understand in particular the Second Person of Godhead, Jesus Christ, and the relationship between His divine and human natures; that controversy spanned most of Leo’s ministry in the fifth century. Observance of Christmas did not become automatic after 380, and the holiday was celebrated only intermittently in the decades that followed. Leo, however, used the occasions of the Feast of the Nativity to educate his flock on the Person and work of Christ Jesus through a series of sermons. If one were to study this closely, one would find a lot of deep theology in it, significantly consistent with what we have received through the Protestant Reformed tradition. And yet, Leo did not write this as a dry academic treatise, but almost as a short spiritual devotional. I commend this to your reading and reflection.