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Mark Smith discusses the reason for the Christmas season.
Christmas! It seems to come around more quickly each year. Some thrive on the season. Others are exhausted by the thought of it. Some, with Ebenezer Scrooge, wail ''Bah hum bug'' as they are haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past.
In many ways, what we see in 21st-century Western culture is far removed from the event it commemorates. Santa, reindeer, mistletoe and Christmas trees are foreign from a stable and the birth of Christ. Someone once called Christmas the Disneyfication of Christianity.
Christmas, for the Christian, is the annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
The actual date, however, remains a mystery. For the first 200 years or so, there was no particular day associated with Jesus' birth, and no indication that it was celebrated at all. By the second century, there was some interest and speculation regarding which day Jesus was born. There are two main theories concerning the date.
The first is the usurping of a pagan festival of Saturnalia, which was celebrated from December 17 to 25. Christians not wanting to take part in some of the gruesome rituals associated with the celebration perhaps used a state-sanctioned holiday to celebrate something that had significance and meaning for them. Once Christianity had became more significant, the celebration of Christmas was more widely recognised.
The problem with this theory is that there is no record of early Christians adopting pagan celebrations and christianising them, until later. By then, it seems, the date for Christmas was already established.
The second is to do with the date of Jesus' conception. Many early Christian writers thought that Jesus' conception and crucifixion happened on the same date, March 25 (Western Church) or April 6 (Eastern Church), which relates to the dating of Christmas being December 25 or January 6. This debate over dates, however, is insignificant when compared to the reason for the celebration.
What is the celebration and why? As we have stated, it celebrates the coming of Jesus, Son of God incarnate.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is told before the birth that her son will be a king, a divine king. C.S. Lewis says in his classic Mere Christianity that Christianity is about ''how the rightful king has landed, you might say in disguise''.
Jesus himself later affirms that he is a king and the reason he was born is to testify to that truth. Jesus being a king made many uneasy at the time; even King Herod sought to kill him as a child because Herod was afraid of any rival.
Jesus spoke more about his kingdom, its reality, its nearness, its future coming, than any other subject.
Bob Dylan, in his anthem When He Returns, puts it like this: ''He's got plans of His own to set up His throne, when He returns.''
And so Christmas relates not just to the coming of a man, but the coming of a king - the Divine King, who promises to return one day to claim his throne.
We learn more as we consider Joseph, Mary's fiancee. When informed of his fiancee's surprise pregnancy, he is told to call the child ''Jesus'', ''because he will save his people from their sins''. This brings us to the heart of the Christian message. The king, in selfless love, comes on a rescue mission.
The rescue is from sin, which is, at its core, a passive or active rejection of God, the source and power behind life. Jesus experienced the result of our rejection, death, so that those who look to him can know forgiveness, freedom and new life that lasts forever. Christians celebrate the Saviour king who came to bring salvation, reconciliation between God and man, and who is coming back to establish his throne forever.
Unlike Scrooge, you don't need to be visited by three ghosts of Christmas past, present and future to become a different person with a new perspective in life.
However, an encounter with King Jesus will do that. His undying love can melt, mould and motivate you. Experiencing His forgiveness and new life is liberating. Debating times and dates and filling Christmas with Disneyfication is only a smokescreen. Take a look at Christ this CHRISTmas.
Mark Smith is pastor of Grace Church, Dunedin.