We had our latest Muslim-Christian Dialogue this past Friday. As we were moving into the Christmas period, it made sense for us to discuss the incarnation and our respective views of the birth of Jesus. You can see what we presented on the Christian side here.
Most of my presentation focused on why Jesus came into the world, centering on his uniqueness as the God-Man. At some point, I started to mention why Christians celebrate Christmas. As I started doing that, I suddenly felt the need to prefix all the comments that followed with a few caveats.
Chief among those caveats was the fact that Christmas is not in the Bible, Christians are not commanded to celebrate it and there really are no biblical grounds for doing anything particular on the day. I went on to explain why many of us nonetheless choose to celebrate Christmas – and you can read some of the reasons I gave for doing so by following the link above – but I wanted to be clear that it is not commanded in the way Ramadan, for example, is for Muslims.
Now, those caveats were entirely appropriate in explaining Christmas to Muslims. They are, like most people, entirely unaware of why we do or don’t celebrate Christmas and – assuming there is a religious reason behind it – presume it is therefore stipulated in the Bible as something we must do. But I am increasingly convinced that those same caveats need to be heard by plenty of Christian people too. So, let me say it again, there is no command to celebrate Christmas in the Bible and no biblical grounds for doing specific things on the day.
There are a few reasons this needs to be heard. First, and probably most common, are those who use Christmas – and the way in which you celebrate it – as a measure of your love for Christ. Again, and I feel this can’t be said enough, Christmas is not in the Bible. The Lord doesn’t command us to celebrate Christmas and the apostles give us no stipulations for what we ought to do at Christmas. So to bind other Christians into celebrating Christmas the way you do, and making much of Christ on that day in the way you think is right, is extra-biblical.
If you find celebrating Christmas a really helpful opportunity to share the gospel, have at it! Just don’t bind others into doing that. If you find it a valuable time to disciple your family in respect to Christ, brilliant! But don’t insist everyone else does that when Jesus doesn’t. If people want to have an entirely secular Christmas that has minimal specific spiritual significance for them, we have no right to insist they should do otherwise. Because Christmas is no more in the Bible than Bonfire Night and nobody (entirely rightly) seems to use the latter as a measure of anybody’s spirituality.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Christmas is a great opportunity to help your family understand more about Jesus. I think, generally, it is a cultural open goal for the gospel and it makes perfect sense to use it to that end. All of that makes sense to me and I am glad to use it as (another) opportunity to focus on Christ – and to point others to him too – as well as enjoying all of the festivities and stuff that has considerably less to do that. But if others don’t want to do that and have other ways of celebrating – or don’t want to celebrate at all – I have no right to tell them otherwise. Because Christmas isn’t in the Bible. Jesus doesn’t demand we celebrate, in any particular way, and we are free to do it or not as we see fit. Our Christmas celebrations are not a measure of our spirituality.
The other way this needs to be heard is for those who insist that, because it’s not in the Bible, nobody should be celebrating Christmas at all. After all, they aver, there are no special days in the Christian calendar any more. Although I think there is an argument to be made as to whether Christmas should dominate what we do in the church or not, just as there is no command insisting we must celebrate Christmas there is equally nothing saying we shouldn’t. Whilst we are free not to celebrate Christmas – so none of us can mandate it – I would argue that our community will draw conclusions about that and wisdom pushes me in a different direction.
If you don’t celebrate Christmas for any number of reasons, that is absolutely fine. You are free not to do so as you see fit. But just as folks who insist that we celebrate Christmas in particular ways have no Biblical grounds for doing so, those who choose not to celebrate cannot bind the conscience of others either. Why not? Because Christmas is not in the Bible. There is no command not to celebrate the birth of Christ, no command not to give each other presents on 25th December, no principle that tells us not to enjoy festivities. This position is as legalistic and extra-Biblical as the one the insists we do particular things at Christmas too.
So please, can we stop making Christmas a mark of your spirituality. Whether you incline toward the ‘celebrate well and make much of Christ’, the ‘don’t celebrate at all’ or the ‘let’s join in a cultural festival for its own sake’ schools of thought, let’s just remember the word ‘Christmas’ isn’t in the Bible. It isn’t commanded or forbidden. It is not a matter of spirituality; it is a festival that we can celebrate or not, as we see fit, in whatever way we want. To quote the apostle Paul: ‘do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.’ I take that to mean, to paraphrase him elsewhere, ‘whether you eat or drink, celebrate or don’t celebrate Christmas, do all to the glory of God.’
Enjoy your Christmas, however you choose to spend it.