Is there a better way of celebrating Christmas?

Christmas in its true origin and meaning is about God being with us in the person of Jesus to break us free from our ridiculous, empty-headed, humanity-draining idols. It’s about a human being who lived the life of God’s world in our world to show us what works instead of the nonsense we’ve created. And there’s probably no more effective and visible illustration of that than the way we celebrate Christmas.

On the one hand, Christmas has its good side. It nibbles round what God created us for, to live and practice the ways of heaven on earth. It’s a valiant attempt at self-giving love, which is at the heart of who God is and how he lives. It tries to create a little light in the darkness by grabbing the one time all year when it’s possible to break free from the daily grind to get together, revive relationships, and enjoy the beauty of family. And for many people it’s lovely. They love buying gifts, love seeing the children’s eyes gleam as they unwrap presents, love cooking up a storm, love the buzz of a house full of relatives, and love the warm fuzzy feelings Christmas creates.

But admit it: It is exhausting. We’ve created a monster that instead of freeing us from our idols has enslaved us to more of them. We must buy presents. We must wow the children. We must make Santa Claus magical. We must make the Christmas meal a work of art. We must do all these things or what will people think if we don’t? It also requires massive planning for large families, as to who goes where and when, and it risks all sorts of offence if some in the family feel cheated of the Christmas they had imagined. Gifts are a nightmare too: Who should you buy gifts for? And what do you give to someone who has everything? But anyone daring to say, “I’ve had enough of this malarkey, it’s driving me nuts,” is in for a verbal bashing and family shame.

Christmas was never meant to be this way, but we’ve painted ourselves into a corner and we’re stuck with it. We’re stuck with obligated giving, stuck with the rush to buy more stuff nobody needs, stuck with having to please children by feeding their selfishness, stuck with the stress and exhaustion of it all.

Is there a better way of celebrating Christmas, then? No, not while we’re stuck with idolizing rituals and customs that have no attachment whatsoever to why Jesus was born. Jesus was born and died to break the back of our cultural idols, not increase them.


Is Christmas required?

But if we all stopped celebrating Christmas the economy would collapse, a store manager told me, and that would cause massive hardship for many families. So despite the crass commercialism of Christmas, and despite the growing pile of plastic junk in the Pacific Ocean, and despite children being bored with most of their Christmas gifts only hours after receiving them, it seems we’re stuck with Christmas, like it or not.

But is it required? And while staring out the window wondering what my answer to that question would be, the story of Nebuchadnezzar and his golden statue in the book of Daniel came to mind. According to my Bible translation the king’s statue was a real attention grabber at 90 feet high and 9 feet wide, the height of an eight story building.

When it was completed Nebuchadnezzar summoned every official in the kingdom to the dedication, at which a “herald loudly proclaimed” in Daniel 3:4, that “This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither (etc.) and all kinds of music, you must all fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.”

Music marked the moment when everybody fell into line and lay prostrate before the statue, which is enlightening, because music does the same to us in November every year. Stores all over the country start playing Christmas carols and Frosty the Snowman over their music systems, and people of every language all over the nation automatically fall into line with the Christmas ritual.

And even though we know the music is designed by stores and corporations to get us all laying prostrate before the Christmas idol in order to make gobs of money for themselves, the music dulls resistance. It worked for Nebuchadnezzar, and it works just as well today.

But it didn’t work on everyone in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. Three men did not fall down and worship the king’s golden statue, because in their minds it was just a god of human making (verse 18), like Christmas is today. The king turned a bright shade of purple in his rage (verse 13) and ordered the men to be thrown into a blazing furnace that was so hot it killed the men who threw them in, just like some families really turn the heat up on those who decide they’ve had enough of Christmas and head off to Cuba instead.

But maybe that’s what’s happening to more people, that as Christmas reaches beyond the realm of sanity it no longer becomes a requirement that must be obeyed.

Walking the tightrope, and on which side of it do we fall?

Christmas is a classic example of the tightrope we Christians have to walk in this world. And we can fall off on either side.

On one side of the tightrope is condemning Christmas for all its obvious faults and ironies, like making gift giving an obligation, or chopping down perfectly healthy trees, or going through the usual exhausting rituals for a few days pleasure, and, of course, its total disconnect in most people’s minds with Jesus’ birth. On the other side of the tightrope is condoning Christmas and everything to do with it, because it’s “all about the kids” and getting together as families, and for Christians it’s a way of introducing kids to Jesus using Christmas icons and rituals as illustrations.

Well, condemning doesn’t help, because it confirms people’s impression that Christians think everything in this world is wrong, and only what Christians believe is right. But condoning doesn’t help either, because it confirms the impression that Christians are scared they won’t be liked and accepted if they don’t run along with everyone else. So Christians are arrogant if they condemn, and cowards if they condone.

Halloween too is a tightrope Christians have to walk. Should Halloween be condemned for making light of evil, or should it be condoned as just another day of harmless fun for the kids, making it easy for Christian kids to join in too? And Remembrance Day as well: Should it be condemned for ignoring the propaganda that drove good men to kill good men and Christian to kill Christian, or should it be condoned and even celebrated for war’s selfless sacrifice of life?

On which side of the tightrope do we fall on these things? But if we do fall on one side it’s going to upset people on the other side, so is there a middle ground, a narrow tightrope between the two sides?

Yes, there is, according to Peter, who lived in a world similar to ours that wanted to blot Christianity out, which faced Christians back then with difficult choices too. Peter’s advice to Christians in such a world was simply to “have an explanation ready for the hope you’ve got” (1 Peter 3:15). That’s the tightrope we walk, that everything about us is driven by hope. Whether we do or don’t participate in Christmas, Halloween or Remembrance Day, therefore, our explanation for our actions remains the same, that we live in hope of a world that either expands on the good of these days, or remedies the bad in them. And the reason the expansion or remedies are possible is because Christ promised them, and he’s now in a position to make sure they happen.

Does patriotism justify killing?

Patriotism has driven a lot of people who would normally never think of killing anyone, to kill. It has even become a cowardly act not to kill and die for one’s country.

But where on earth did such an idea come from? It’s not in Scripture. God doesn’t tell us to kill and die for our country. And he’s the one with the authority as to what should and shouldn’t be done for one’s country, because he was the one who created countries in the first place (Acts 17:26).

And it was never his idea to set country against country, nor did he ever hint that one country was superior to another, or that one race had his divine approval to treat members of other races as inferior or subhuman.

God’s purpose for creating nations wasn’t to have people make gods out of their countries either. According to Acts 17:27 God created nations “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” So think how different our history would be if we’d done that and made him the God we seek, not national pride. And what if we’d concentrated our attention as nations on seeking God as the solution to our problems, rather than war or killing those who oppose us?

And God did give us an example of what happens to nations that trust him. The nation of Israel in the Old Testament wasn’t the greatest example of a nation that trusted God, but when they did trust him their problems evaporated and their enemies were crushed, and often without one Israelite being killed or any Israelite having to lift a finger in self-defence.

But what nation since has ever trusted God enough to see if he’ll do that for them too? What if before World War 2 the millions of Christians living in Britain and Germany “sought God and reached out for him” to solve the impossible situation developing, rather than stirring up people’s patriotic fervour to the point they’d do anything for their country, including sacrifice their lives for it, and kill innocent people?

God proved again and again to Old Testament Israel that he could be trusted to resolve their impossible situations, and against enemies with massively superior numbers and much better weapons. So he was justifiably furious when Israel did not seek him as their first choice for solving their problems, preferring instead a patriotic call to war and killing, just as Christian nations did before and during World War 2.

The result of that kind of patriotism, though, has always been the unnecessary death and suffering of millions of people. When will we ever learn?

“Well, somebody has to do it”

Somebody has to deal with evil, right? We’ve got crackpots all over this planet willing to kill and maim and do terrible things to people without any pangs of conscience or remorse.

The only way to stop them is to kill them. So aren’t we fortunate that there are brave people willing to sacrifice their own lives to stop evil in its tracks? And while evil exists that has to be true, because what other alternative do we have, other than eradicating evil by killing the people who are the source of it?

It’s interesting, then, that we use that argument to justify going to war with other countries, but not in dealing with murderers and psychos back home. Even though the same rule applies, that we’re only safe and free if evil is eradicated, society gets a little squeamish about the death penalty for criminals, but not at all squeamish about going to war.

On the one hand, then, we remember those brave soldiers every year who stepped up to deal with evil because “somebody has to do it,” but we have no ceremony to honour those brave enough to exact the death penalty on hardened criminals, even though those criminals are just as much a threat to our safety and freedom.

We don’t like the death penalty for criminals though, because we like to think they can be cured. So we give them time and counsel and kindness believing we can soften their hardened hearts, or we make life tough for them in jail or boot camp to force them into changing. But sad experience has told us that some people cannot be reached or reasoned with. They have no fear, no conscience, and no care or sympathy for those they hurt.

In war we have no hesitation in killing people like that, but in the process we kill a lot of innocent people too. Exacting the death penalty on a hardened criminal, however, kills only the guilty. So why is there hesitation in killing a criminal?

Because somebody has to look that person in the eye and pronounce judgment on him, and who among us feels we have the right to do that? We are all guilty of something – in our thoughts if not our actions. So if we’re honest with ourselves we’re all criminals, which leaves none of us with the right to kill anyone.

What we should be concentrating on, then, is dealing with our own guilt. But fortunately Jesus took care of that by taking all our criminality and guilt on himself. Why? Because somebody had to do it, and only he could.

The conundrum that is Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day brings into sharp focus a conundrum, that humans are willing to sacrifice their lives. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Christian or non-Christian, or which side you’re on in a war; the instinct to give up our lives for a cause we believe to be right is shared by all.

We acknowledge that instinct on Remembrance Day as we remember the men and women who gave up their lives to free the world of a brutal evil. But where did such an instinct come from? It flies in the face of Evolution for a start, which talks of creatures and plants doing whatever they must to survive. But all through our history humans have put aside their instinct to survive, and in the prime of their lives they do what Evolution would never support a species doing. Where in Evolution, for instance, does a species give up its life when it’s at the top of its game?

So where did this conundrum of self-sacrifice come from? Well, from God, of course, because it helps us to understand him. We see God best “in the face of Christ,” 2 Corinthians 4:6, and what we see in Christ is God willing to give up his life in his prime too, and for the same reason we are willing to give up our lives – to rid the world of evil.

What Christ did rings a familiar and honourable bell in a human heart, because the most honourable thing a human being can do is give up his life for others, especially in his prime. But it’s in us to do that. It’s instinctive in us to give up our lives to crush evil. And we recognize that instinct every year on Remembrance Day.

Remembrance Day, therefore, shines a light on the amazing phenomenon of a species being willing to give up its life, and it also shines a bright light on God – because we’re not so different, we humans and God, are we? He was willing to rid the world of evil by self-sacrifice, and so are we. It makes it very easy for us to understand God, then, because tucked away inside us is the same heart he has.

No wonder the Christian message “commends” itself, or rings true, “to every man’s conscience,” verse 2, because the sacrificing of a life to rid the world of evil is what we already believe as good and true as well. Remembrance Day isn’t really such a conundrum, then, because self-sacrifice is a desire God has given us to help us understand him.

Who decides it’s right for Christians to fight and kill in war?

So which Christian authority decided it was right for 60 million Christians in Germany to fight and kill people in World War 2, and which Christian authority gave permission to millions of other Christians to fight and kill Germans in return? To whom did both groups of Christians look for their authority?

For a long time Christians have believed their authority to go to war came from Paul in Romans 13:1 when he wrote, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” therefore, verse 2, “he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.” Christians had better obey their national leaders, in other words, and that includes going to war.

But what should Christians then do if their national leaders tell their people to go to war and it pits Christian against Christian in a fight to the death? Surely that can’t be right, so what common Christian authority do Christians now turn to for an answer?

It’s the same problem for Muslims. Sunnis and Shias don’t share a common authority deciding who is right and who is wrong either. So they, just like millions of Christians, have murdered each other on a massive scale, without any guilt or even embarrassment at how this must look to people being asked to respect Islam and Christianity.

The context of Romans 13, meanwhile, is not about international warfare, or about Christians responding to a call to arms in an international conflict. The context is about being a good citizen in one’s own country, as Paul himself explains in verse 6 when he talks of Christians paying their taxes. It has nothing to do with fighting and killing in war.

When it comes to international conflict – or conflict of any kind for that matter – Christians do have a common authority. It’s Jesus, who clearly stated that “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.” That’s a nice, simple statement all Christians can relate to – that as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom we don’t fight, even in defence of Christ himself.

And since God established Jesus as our Judge (Acts 17:30-31), it is Jesus we answer to. He is our common authority as Christians. He’s also King of Kings and Lord of Lords of the entire planet so his government overrules all human governments. And according to his government regulations his servants do not fight and kill. If our national leaders require us to fight and kill, therefore, we obey Jesus, not them. It’s Jesus we trust to resolve our conflicts, not war or weapons.