For nearly 1,700 years, Christians in most parts of the world have celebrated Dec. 25 as the anniversary date of the nativity—the birth of Jesus Christ. But the earliest believers, in the first two centuries after the establishment of the church, observed Jan. 6 as the proper date.
Rev. Tommy Vann of First United Methodist Church gave an overview of the Christmas holiday in both the spiritual and secular settings during last week’s Rotary Club of McMinnville meeting.
Rev. Vann explained the early church and followers weren’t so interested in Christ’s birth. Jesus’ death and resurrection were more important to them because they were more interested in Him coming back.
“Early on, Jesus’ birth was not marked by any kind of festivities as Christians began worshipping Jesus,” said Vann. “As time passed, the questions ‘What happened at Jesus’ birth?’ and ‘What are the origins of His birth?’ became more important.”
Essentially, fourth century bishops and religious scholars decided on Dec. 25 to celebrate Christmas to promote unity among Christians in both theology and practice. They employed some highly speculative theology, numerology and astrology--and even incorporated bits of pagan mythology--to validate their chosen date.
According to Vann, by the sixth century, Christians had tied Advent to the coming of Christ. The coming they were referring to wasn’t His birth in a manger, but the second coming of Jesus in the clouds. Vann explained it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the Advent season was explicitly linked to Christ’s birth and His first coming.
In Vann’s presentation, he also sang and compared two holiday songs – “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” In the first song, Vann explained the focus is on spending money and decorating while the second carol gives us a summary of the entire Christian faith.
Using quotes from author Timothy Keller’s “Hidden Christmas” and lyrics from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Vann answered fundamental questions about the Christian faith.
Who is Jesus in this song? He is the everlasting Lord, who from highest heaven comes down to be the offspring of the virgin’s womb.
What did He come to do? His mission is to see God and sinners are reconciled … that they come together.
How did he accomplish it? He lays His own glory down, His body down that we no more may die.
How can this life be ours? The song answers – through an inward spiritual generation so radical that we have not seen it and it is called the second birth.
Rev. Vann reminded Rotary members we need to remember the roots of our Christmas heritage.
“Jesus came as a child just like us so that we can understand that God loves us so much in our humanity and came to show us that love by living beside us,” said Vann. “He came and dwelt among us.”