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CHRISTMAS!


Where does the Bible tell us that Jesus was born on December 25th?

There is no evidence in the Bible that Jesus was born on December 25. The earliest followers of Jesus and the people who wrote down the events surrounding his life and work on earth do not seem to have been very interested in the date of his birth and did not record it or celebrate it. Origen, one of the early Church fathers (c.185-c.254), preached against a birthday celebration for Jesus. He said it would be wrong to honour him in the same way political leaders like Herod were honoured. Early Christians believed that birthdays were pagan rituals for pagan gods. If observed at all, the celebration of Christ's birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church's earliest established feasts. Eastern Churches adopted this as the date for the celebration of Christ's birth and his baptism. The Armenian Church continues this tradition.

Information recorded in the Bible about Jesus’ birth date, would suggest some time in September as a more likely date. This is based on the fact that Luke 1.26 tells us that the angel came to Mary to tell her she would have a son when Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John. Some calculations based on the time when Elizabeth’s husband was serving in the temple where he received the news that Elizabeth would become pregnant put the approximate date of John’s birth in March and Jesus’ birth six months later in September. This would be a much more likely time for events recorded in Luke 2, such as Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem and the presence of the shepherds in the fields with their flocks at night.

The customary time in Judea for collecting taxes was during the fall festivals, following summer harvest. The census which required Joseph to travel to Bethlehem would most probably have taken place at this season. The festivals brought many pilgrims to Jerusalem and nearby towns like Bethlehem, creating the crowded conditions which left Joseph and Mary without proper lodging. Finally, the shepherds would not have been out in the fields during the cold of winter. Sheep were normally brought in for shelter as the weather turned colder and the rainy season began, especially at night.

Regardless of the pagan background of so many December traditions, and whether or not Jesus was born on December 25th, Christians today can redeem the season at the time when our pagan ancestors celebrated the renewal of light and the coming of the new year as a time to focus on the time when the “true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

After Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, church leaders in Rome decided to celebrate Christ's birth during the winter solstice in an attempt to Christianize these pagan celebrations. They instituted a new feast on December 25, which they called “Christ-Mass” or the mass celebrating Christ. For the most part their efforts failed to make the people conform, and the pagan celebrations continued, giving rise to many of the Christmas customs we embrace today. Gift-giving and merrymaking come from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various festive foods come from Teutonic feasts. Today we find ourselves left with a bizarre marriage of pagan and Christian elements characterizing our modern celebration of Christmas.

Regardless of the pagan background of so many December traditions, and whether or not Jesus was born on December 25th, Christians today can redeem the season at the time when our pagan ancestors celebrated the renewal of light and the coming of the new year as a time to focus on the time when the “true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1.9). During this season our pagan ancestors celebrated “Saturnalia” a time for feasting, gift-giving and role reversal where masters would serve their slaves. As Christ followers we can redeem these festivities to celebrate the good news of the Kingdom where Jesus is Lord. In his time on earth Jesus inaugurated this Kingdom as an upside-down kingdom where the last are first, the poor are blessed and people are invited to join the party. And ultimately in this season we celebrate the greatest gift exchange ever known. The riches of God exchanged for our poverty when God became human so that we could live with God.

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