Stop binding consciences and marking spirituality by Christmas celebrations

Over recent years, there has been a push by some to mark spirituality according to your Christmas celebrations. In the red corner, there are those who believe Christmas is a vital festival where we must work hard to make Christ supreme. How you celebrate is a measure of how much you love him. Unless every aspect of your Christmas, right down to the runner you use on your table, pushes you to think about Jesus even more than normal, you are apparently doing it wrong and it may be a sign that you do not honour Christ in your heart as you ought. Biblically, they argue that the incarnation is a vital biblical concept and celebrating the birth of Jesus seems like a good and noble thing to do.

In the blue corner, there are those who follow the example of parliament during the protectorate. For them, Christmas is pagan, or Catholic, and frankly rarely seems to have much to do with Jesus anyway. Whatever its roots, it’s pretty much a secular festival these days where few people are really thinking about the incarnation and are more bothered about presents than anything else. It is little more than a commercialised sin-fest and we should steer clear. Biblically, they argue, the Bible doesn’t command the celebration of Christmas and it actively steers us away from many of the trappings, as they perceive them. We ought to be thinking about Christ all the time and thinking about the incarnation all the time, not just at a culturally appointed time of year. On this view, there are no biblical grounds to celebrate Christmas and some reasons to keep away. If you go celebrating Christmas, it is a measure of your heart toward Jesus, just in the inverse direction to the view outlined above.

So, who is right? Well, frankly, neither. Here is the thing, Christmas is not in the Bible. That much, the second group get right. But because it is not in the Bible, we cannot go binding consciences on how, or if, anybody celebrates it. There is nothing in the Bible that says to celebrate; there is nothing in the Bible that says do not. There is nothing in the Bible that says you love Jesus more if you treat it as a special day on which to think about him, or if you think of it as a secular festival to be enjoyed like Bonfire Night, or if you think of it as something you don’t want any part in at all. It is no different a question, then, to the disciples of John approaching Jesus asking why his disciples don’t fast and Jesus neither rebuking them for doing so nor insisting his disciples must. That instance with John’s disciples is instructive because, if it is telling us anything, it is that finding a practice helpful or best is not a grounds to bind other consciences where Jesus doesn’t.

I am worried when people begin making your Christmas celebration a mark of your spirituality because, ultimately, Jesus doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter whether people are trying to insist you have to mark every second with thoughts of Christ, all decorations in your house must reflect Jesus and present opportunities to talk to your family about him with anything less being a mark of your love for the Lord. It doesn’t really matter whether people are trying to insist that Christmas isn’t for the likes of us; it is pagan and sinful and terrible. There are no special days anymore so you shouldn’t be inventing them and to celebrate shows a heart that doesn’t love the Lord as it ought. At the end of the day, both are trying to bind your conscience where Jesus doesn’t.

For what it’s worth (and, to be clear, I’m not saying you have to do as I do), Christmas is effectively a secular festival for me. It has nothing to do with the church and isn’t demanded of Christian people in the Bible. But it is fun and I like it. What is more, I am always glad to have an opportunity to think more about Jesus. If a culturally appointed time of year helps me do that, I have no problem with it at all. I’m glad to do that. But I don’t feel I love Jesus more thinking about him then than I do, say, every other day I think about him too.

I am also quite happy to take whatever evangelistic opportunities come from this time of year too. I might be thinking about Jesus all the time, but I know the world around me doesn’t. If they might be thinking about him even a little bit because our culture has helped them to do that, I have no problem taking what opportunities we are afforded for the sake of the gospel. I don’t think you have to do that. If you don’t, I assume you are taking other gospel opportunities throughout the year. Frankly, we prefer to emphasise the routine and regular because a one-hit wonder Christmas programme isn’t going to produce much gospel fruit of itself. Our more regular things, and our ongoing relationships, are likely to do that. But if Christmas stuff might help us make first contact with people, or help us share the gospel with some people because they happen to be looking because our culture says that’s what you do at the end of December, I’m glad to throw my lot in and make the best of it.

I am also conscious that many roundabout us will be looking at what we do. Whilst I do not think our Christmas celebrations are a measure of our love for Christ – eat and drink (or don’t) to the glory of God! – I am painfully conscious many in our community do think it says something about our love for Jesus. If our lights are off and nobody is home at the culturally appointed time they believe all Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, they will draw the conclusion that we aren’t all that bothered about Jesus coming into the world. That has some big problems when it comes to telling them – whenever we happen to do it – that Jesus coming into the world for sinners is the most vital bit of good news they are ever likely to hear. They view it as akin to saying how much you love your children and never, ever turning up on their birthday. Whether it ought to be a measure of our love or not, it doesn’t stop other people thinking it is and viewing our closed doors and apparent lack of interest negatively. If for no other reason than the optics, I think doing something at Christmas impacts our gospel witness. None of that really governs what I then go home and do; just the desire to meet publicly to remember the incarnation.

But if I lived in a community that wasn’t bothered and for whom Christmas just wasn’t a consideration – nobody thinking anything of the church being closed on 25th December – and if I knew there was no gospel opportunity to be had from it, I wouldn’t think anything of not meeting. I don’t think there is any compulsion to do so. It is, at best, a wisdom call based on the community you are in. What it certainly is not is any sort of measure of your spiritual health.

So, consider this your annual reminder. Christmas is not in the Bible. You don’t have to do it and you don’t have to avoid it either. We are entirely free. Your spiritual temperature is not determined by whether you celebrate Christmas or not. Neither does your love for Jesus depend on whether you manage to make Jesus the absolute epicentre of your celebration, with every bauble reflecting gospel truth, or you just enjoy having a nice time and give thanks to God for it like you would any other enjoyable thing. None of it, really, tells you very much about your love for Christ.

So, enjoy Christmas (or don’t). Celebrate (or don’t). Use it as an opportunity to remember the incarnation or treat it as the secular winterval. Make every decoration reflect the birth of Jesus or just enjoy God’s good gifts of Christmas dinner and presents in the general way you would enjoy anything. And whatever you do, and however you do it, do it all to the glory of God.