For nearly four weeks leading up to Christmas Christians recognise a period called Advent. It means ‘coming’. It is a time of spiritual preparation. Coming refers to Jesus’ first coming as a baby, but it also looks forward to a day when Jesus is expected to return in triumph at his ‘second coming’ to establish perfect justice and a new order of peace.
Originally Christians marked Advent as a time when they refrained from excessive eating and drinking. Then Christmas Day reintroduced them to the joys of feasting. Christmas celebrations lasted for twelve days, with gifts exchanged as a climax at Epiphany (6 January). Today, however, Advent is more likely to be associated with accelerating festivity, with the days following Christmas something of an anticlimax until ‘twelfth night’, on which decorations are removed. Many Christians worldwide are trying to revive the spirit of Advent by setting aside time to pray and address global poverty.
Christmas Day is celebrated as the anniversary of Jesus’ birth, although the actual date is not known. Most Christians celebrate it on 25 December. However, the Orthodox Church (the ancient group of Christian churches found especially in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia) follows a different calendar and celebrates on 7 January. Christians make a point of taking communion on Christmas Day. Many make it the first thing they do as the clock strikes midnight.
On 6 January the Christmas festival continues with a celebration of Epiphany, which means ‘the appearance’. Christians remember the visit of wise men (magi) to Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Christmas tradition of exchanging gifts originally honoured these men, who were the first non-Jews (Gentiles) to worship Jesus. It forms a reminder that in Jesus God was giving himself for the benefit of the entire world.
Orthodox Christians use this day to recall the baptism of Jesus as a grown man. The significance of Jesus being baptised was that he identified himself with human beings in all their need. They mark the day by praying for God’s blessing on rivers, wells and water sources.
Christmas has never been just an escapist festival for Christians. Those who treat it seriously recognise that not all the world is able to face the days with frivolity or joy. The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, was historically marked as the feast of St Stephen. He was the first man to be put to death rather than give up his belief that Jesus was God. And two days later a day remembering the Massacre of the Innocents recalls Herod’s attempt to destroy Jesus by killing all male babies in Bethlehem. Although not so widely marked as Christmas Day, it gives Christians the opportunity to pray for children in today’s world who suffer as a result of the actions of adults.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.
Where to find it:
1 Timothy 3:16.
About these words:
Paul, one of the Christian church’s first leaders, quotes a hymn about Jesus that was being sung within thirty years of his death.
And they said…
14th century German carol, In Dulci Jubilo:
Good Christian men, rejoice!
With heart and soul and voice,
Give ye heed to what we say:
Jesus Christ is born today!
Now ye need not fear the grave,
Jesus Christ was born to save.
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!
Garrison Keillor, novelist and broadcaster:
Santa Claus was not prominent in the pastor’s theology. He had a gift of making you feel you’d better go home and give all the presents to the poor and spend Christmas with a bowl of soup, and not too many noodles in it either. He preached the gospel straight, and as he said, the gospel is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He certainly afflicted the Lutherans.
The lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory. Like a thunderstorm we all go through it together.