Thursday, December 25, 2014

Putting the "CHRIST" and "MAS" Back in Christmas (and Other Thoughts on Christmas)


Putting the “CHRIST” and “MAS” back in Christmas.

“The celebration of Jesus’ birth!” That’s the general answer if you ask people what Christmas is about.  But, for most of them, in their hearts, “Jesus’ birthday” is just like another aspect of Christmas instead of the ultimate reason.  “Jesus’ birthday” is just right up there with the gifts and parties and the decorations and the holiday that defines what Christmas is for them.      

The word “Christmas” originates from “Christ” and “mass”, which basically means “worship.”  But there seems to be not enough of “Christ” and “worship” in modern observance of Christmas.  I am not saying that the features of the modern Christmas celebration – gifts, trees, lights, decorations, foods, reunions, parties, vacation, merrymaking, etc. – are diminishing the essence of Christmas.  But people tend to focus on them rather than to let these things point them to Christ and worship him.    

Christmas is a season worth rejoicing over because of Christ’s birth.  The actuality of this event in human history is such a big deal for it means that God dwelt among us.  Immanuel.  God with us.  Jesus is God incarnating as Man, to be the Representative and Savior of mankind; so that He can suffer and die in our place, ensuing our freedom from sin and our deliverance from eternal damnation.  

And, thus, as response, every feature of our Christmas – food, gifts, decorations, songs, festivities, etc. – should not be the source of our excitement and happiness this season, but let them merely help us to direct the focus of our ultimate joy in Jesus and let him be glorified by all aspects of our Christmas celebration.     

December 25 used to be a pagan date of celebration, but early Christians chose to sanctify the date and use it to commemorate Jesus’ birth instead.  Now, in a world that seems to forget why it’s rejoicing in the first place, let us, Christians, once again sanctify the modern practices of the holiday and point the rest of the world to the glory of Jesus Christ.  

Joy to the world!   The Lord is come!   

We celebrate Jesus’ birthday.  But, ironically, we get the gifts.

Most importantly, we are the ones who received the “Greatest Gift.”

Christmas is ultimately about God giving his own son (John 3:16); Jesus giving his life for a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). 

Thus, the “Greatest Gift” is the Birthday Celebrant himself, Jesus Christ.  And through Christ, we became recipients of grace, joy, hope, peace, salvation, eternal life, and the fellowship of God!  Such awesome Gift! 

That’s why Christmas is said to be the “Season of Giving.”  For God has given us so much.  Hence, we who have experienced the lavish extravagance of God’s giving can afford to give generously. 

Christmas Banes

People who haven’t grasped the blessing of Christmas don’t have the “Spirit of Giving.”  Rather, they have the “Spirit of Expecting of Receiving Something” or, worse, the “Spirit of Begging.”  There’s also the “Spirit of Christmas Cynicism” but I like to think that the moral of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has already taken most of it away from people.  Still, I will still touch upon the matter later on.  For now, let me talk of these major banes in Christmas: the “Spirit of Expecting of Receiving Something” and the “Spirit of Begging.”

A person with the “Spirit of Expecting of Receiving Something”, well, expects that he or she has to receive something for Christmas.   He or she believes that people around him or her are obliged to give him or her gifts.  Instead of thinking of what he or she can give to others, what this person is looking forward to are the stuff that he or she will get.  This is the kind of person that prepares an inadequate, thoughtless gift to join the “exchange gifts” with the intent of getting a superior thing in return.  And this is the kind of person who grumbles when the gift he or she receives during “exchange gifts” is inferior to the gift he or she prepared.    

The “Spirit of Begging” is just an extension of the “Spirit of Expecting of Receiving Something.”  But this now involves begging.  I have nothing against poor people.  But begging, for me, is only a shade lighter away from crime.  And, like crime, begging for money is reserved for two kinds of people: a.) the desperate; and b.) the callously shameless or conscienceless.  I don’t approve of chronic begging but I have some sympathy for those in the first category and none for the second (I might expound on the matter in some future essay).  But, either way, I hate it when people use the greeting “Merry Christmas” as a means of begging.  Seriously, if you greet someone “Merry Christmas”, your intention is to give or, at least, bless the ones you are greeting.  For me, using the word “Christmas” as a means for begging is blasphemy. 

Look, if you are going to beg, just straight-up say that you are begging – “Do you have spare change?”, or “Alms! Alms!”, or anything that simply say that you are begging for money – and leave “Christmas” out of it.  Now, if you received something from the one you are begging from, then you can appropriately bless him or her with “Merry Christmas!” then.     

When beggars greet me with “Merry Christmas” as a means of begging, I simply smile and greet them a hearty “Merry Christmas!” back.  I have no right dictating how you can show your Christmas generosity.  But I suggest that you do likewise whenever beggars greet you with “Merry Christmas” in order to get money from you.  Don’t give money to those who beg by barefacedly exploiting Christmas.  Don’t encourage such blasphemous practice. 

Rather than give to this kind of beggars – who you aren’t sure anyway if they are indeed in poverty or are just lazy or belongs in a syndicate – give to people that you actually know – friends, relatives, acquaintances, churchmates, etc. – are in need.  Surely, you probably personally know people that could use some Christmas cheer.  These are the ones you should lavishly portray your Christmas generosity.   

Again, I can’t dictate you how you should practice your Christmas generosity.  But, at all times, let your Christmas generosity lead those people you chose to favor towards Christ.  Let your generosity direct them to the immeasurable generosity of Christ, that they may see that He is the Greatest Treasure Ever.   

In fact, that’s the best thing to give to those people you meet that have the “Spirit of Begging.”  Rather than give them money, take the time to tell them about Jesus.  These people actually need Jesus in their lives more than money (which is apparent from having the “Spirit of Begging” in their lives).  Do your best to let them see that Jesus is a Treasure that is infinitely greater than any material thing they can obtain from begging.  

I know of a Christian man that does it right.  When beggars come to his doorstep to ask for “Christmas”, instead of immediately giving them something, he would invite them in his house so he can tell them about Jesus.   Realizing that they probably won’t get any money from this man, these beggars would refuse and go away.  This is just sad.  The man was actually offering them something more valuable – Christ himself – than any “Christmas” they are expecting.         

On Carols

And due to this distorted outlooks of Christmas – “Spirit of Expecting of Receiving Something” and “Spirit of Begging” – carols which are meant to fill the air with Christmas cheer instead fill the air with noise.    

Most children carolers are motivated by the money or treats that they can receive from caroling. The greediness is apparent from the lack of effort they put in their caroling.   They don’t even bother practicing their song-set nor bother to master the lyrics of the songs.  They sing gibberish; are out of tune and out of beat; and gets mad and sings a mocking song whenever they don’t receive anything from those they are caroling, i.e. the ones they expect to get money from.  

Caroling, like all other features of Christmas, is about giving.  The primary purpose of going house to house and singing Christmas carols is to spread Christmas cheer and declare Christ’s glory in the season, NOT to get money from the people you are caroling to.

Every December, caroling is an activity in our church.  We go to impoverished communities and visit our poor members and their neighbors.  We sing carols and then give them rice.  This is caroling done right –giving!  It’s a wonderful tradition that I’m proud I’m part of. 
      
As a Sunday School teacher and an elementary teacher, I have the opportunity to tell my students the proper attitude of caroling.  I tell them that they should have a heart of giving whenever they go caroling.  As children, they are limited financially, thus, caroling is the best opportunity they have to give to people.  They should sing Christmas songs with all their heart; let people enjoy their singing.  Don’t expect or ask money from the houses they are caroling.  If they are given something, then be thankful.  And even if people don’t give them anything, don’t grumble but still be cheerful and thankful.     

There’s this beautiful Christmas short that a local network ran years ago.  A group of children went caroling, and they stopped on a house belonging to an old man spending Christmas Eve alone.  Hearing the children singing, the old man started feeling his pockets for some coins, but there were none.  He went outside and apologized to the children that he doesn’t have anything to give, and then went back inside.  The children looked at each other for a second.  Then, they started singing again.  They shouted that it’s okay, that they will sing for free.  It made the old man smile.  The children finished their song, and, lastly, greeted the old man a hearty Merry Christmas.  Beautiful!  That for me defined how children should proceed with caroling.         
 
Again, I have no right to tell you how you should practice your Christmas generosity.   Give them money or treats (it’s preferable if you give them treats rather than money) or none, it’s up to you.  But, again, like with beggars, let your generosity lead them to Jesus.  Tell them about Jesus and how valuable he is than any material things they can obtain.  Invite them to Sunday School.  Give them Gospel tracts for children.  Actually give them Something more substantial than money or treats.       
   
It is understandable to an extent because these children who go caroling to get money know nothing better.  Unfortunately, many of these children grow up without actually realizing that Christmas is about giving.  They grow up thinking the rest of the world is obliged to give them something during this time of the year, hence, exploiting Christmas to get money.  That’s why children, as young as they are, need to know Jesus during Christmas.    

The harm of the Santa Claus myth

I have nothing against Santa Claus as a fictional character (I know he’s based on an actual historical person, but the pop culture representation of old St. Nick is, of course, fantasy).  In fact, like other fictional heroes, whose qualities we admire about them are projected in our admiration of the supremely admirable God, Santa Claus the fictional character can do likewise.  My problem is how people would fool children by declaring that this mythological Santa Claus is actually real, and would give them gifts during Christmas if they behave.  These children will grow up and eventually realize the truth that Santa Claus is fictional, but the “Spirit of Expecting of Receiving Something” and materialism is already implanted in them by years of expecting gifts from Santa.  Hence, the Santa Claus mythology is what charms them and not the reality of Jesus Christ, the real reason of the season – Someone that is infinitely more exciting than Santa Claus.  As John Piper brilliantly analyzed:   
"It is mindboggling to me that any Christian would even contemplate such a trade, that we would divert attention away from the incarnation of the God of the universe into this world to save us and our children. . . . Not only is Santa Claus not true — and Jesus is very truth himself — but compared to Jesus, Santa is simply pitiful, and our kids should be helped to see this.
"Santa Claus offers only earthly things, nothing lasting, nothing eternal. Jesus offers eternal joy with the world thrown in — the fire engine is thrown in (1 Corinthians 3:21–23).
"Santa Claus offers his ephemeral goodies only on the condition of good works: 'He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you have been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.' That is a pure works religion. And Jesus offers himself all the gifts freely, by grace, for faith.
"Santa Claus is make-believe. Jesus is more real than the roof on your house.
"Santa Claus only shows up once a year. Jesus promises, 'I will be with you always' (Matthew 28:20). You say to your kid every night: 'He is standing by your bed. He is with you when you get up in the morning. He is with you when you go to school today. If mommy and daddy die, he will be right there with you.' Santa doesn’t hold a candle to this flame, Jesus.
"Santa Claus cannot solve our worst problem. Jesus did solve our worst problem, our sin and our alienation from God. Santa Claus can put some icing on the cake of the good life, but he cannot take a shattered life and rebuild it with hope forever. And our kids need to know that about Christmas.
"Santa Claus is not relevant in many cultures of the world. Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords over all the peoples of the world.
"Santa Claus will be forgotten some day and Jesus 'is the same yesterday and today and forever' (Hebrews 13:8).
"So there is no contest here. I cannot see why a parent, if they know and love Jesus, if they have found Jesus to be the greatest treasure in the world, why they would bring Jesus out of the celebration and Santa into the celebration at all — I mean, he is just irrelevant. He has nothing to do with it. He is zero.
"So my counsel is to give all your efforts to making your children as happy as they can possibly be with every kind of surprise that is rooted in the true meaning of Christmas. Let your decorations point to Jesus. Let your food point to Jesus. Let your games point to Jesus. Let your singing point to Jesus. Out-rejoice the world, out-give the world, out-decorate the world, and let it all point to Jesus.
"If being Jesus-focused is a killjoy for your Christmas, you don’t know him well."

The sooner children know that Santa Claus isn’t real and his philosophy can’t satisfy, then the sooner they can go on a more exciting path towards Jesus Christ. 

Why bother with Christmas

One of the songs we sing during our church caroling is “Christmas Without Christ”, which goes like this:
"Why bother with the tree?
Why bother with the lights?
If you ignore the meaning of that first silent night.
Why bother with an angel?
Why bother with the gifts?
If you ignore the message Jesus Christ came to give.
Christmas without Christ
There's no Savior, there's no joy
Christmas without Christ
There's no reason to rejoice
Christmas without Christ
Oh, it makes me wanna cry
Why bother having Christmas without Christ?"

It’s easy to be cynical on how the Christmas season has become.  With the trees, the gifts, the decors, the parties, and all that stuff, it feels like that Christmas has become a time for commercialism, compulsory spending, and obligatory merrymaking.  Thus, Christmas begins to feel onerous and empty.  And it is… if Christ is not made the center of it all.  Just as what Charlie Brown and the gang learned in the classic Christmas cartoon, A Charlie Brown Christmas (which I have watched countless times already during the Christmas season), Christmas is stressful and burdensome if we forget what it’s really about: Jesus Christ. 

Because if Christ is the center of our Christmas celebrations, all these things we bother about – exchanging presents, singing carols, putting up trees and lights and decorations, preparing festivities and food – have significance, for all of these are merely directing us to the hope and rapturous joy that is solely found in the Birthday Celebrant. Hence, we can derive a genuine and meaningful – and even yearlong – celebration, because there is much to rejoice about in Jesus Christ. 

Happy birthday, Jesus.  Merry Christmas, everyone.   

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