An Inoffensive Christmas Service?
Church growth experts tell us that Christmas Eve surpasses Easter as the time when people are most likely to go to church. It’s a recent development but should not be surprising. Religious practices have caught up to cultural preferences. Santa Claus has always won out over the Easter Bunny. It’s an important piece of information for churches planning evangelistic outreach. Better to exploit than bemoan it.
But the question ‘Why?’ demands an answer. Why do people prefer Christmas over Easter? I think it’s because it’s a lot easier to make Christmas warm and fuzzy. A baby in a manger, a young mother married to a poor carpenter making a long journey just before her due date, some shepherds watching sheep, a choir of angels, a star, and a few wise men are not very threatening. And who can object to a message of love, joy, and peace?
It’s harder to avoid the confrontation of Easter. Easter confronts you with the death by torture of an innocent man and with the claim that his dead body came to life. Easter gets in your face and asks, ‘Can you make sense of this death? Do you believe this miracle?’
Christmas seems not to have the same potential for offence – unless you think about it. There is the offence of the mystery. Christmas reveals God as one God in whom there is a plurality of persons, who are ‘the same in substance, equal in power and glory.’ ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (the Word already was existing at the beginning). ‘And the Word was God’ (though differentiated yet fully God himself). This second person, the Word, emptied himself, not by subtraction (he remained God) but by addition (he became man). ‘And the Word was made flesh’ (the real stuff of a human nature) ‘and lived among us’ (not an apparition but a man). Christmas confronts with the mystery of the God-Man.
There is the offence of the miracle. God became a man when Mary, an engaged teenager, who had never experienced sexual relations, conceived a child, whose name was Jesus. The answer to her question ‘How?’ is the answer to ours: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God . . . For nothing is impossible with God.’ Christmas confronts with the miracle of the virgin birth.
There is the offence of the message. The message of Christmas is warm but not fuzzy. ‘You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ ‘Today . . . a Saviour has been born to you.’ God never hid the message of Christmas, nor should we. Christmas confronts us with a message that cannot be detached from Good Friday and Easter.
Christmas offended from the very beginning. The slaughter of the babies by Herod was the first confirmation of the prophecy of Simeon. ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many will be revealed.’
Christian churches who seek to celebrate the Saviour and save sinners will courageously confess the Creed:
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man . . .
They will maximize the mystery, the miracle, and the message of Christmas.
William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Mississippi.
Hope of the Church 15 October 2021
To help us in the dealings of our lives we should have such a conception of God as not to limit him in our thoughts. When we are in extremity we must not tie him to this thing or to that thing. He can make matter out of nothing. Why should we limit the unlimited […]
The Prayer Meeting 3 September 2021
Why bother coming to the prayer meeting? In the pecking order of many congregations, it is somewhere below the much-lamented evening service. In the priorities of too many Christians, it seems to have little value. It’s the one we can afford to miss. It’s the one to which we don’t, or maybe wouldn’t, take our […]