The Business of Redeeming
By Jesse Carey
Every Christmas, among all of the celebrations, decorations and traditions, there are Christians who raise vocal concerns about the perceived pagan roots of Christmas (or, at least the way and time of year in which we celebrate it). It is true that many biblical scholars believe that Christ was actually born in late summer (and not in December), and many of the traditions that resemble how we celebrate today pre-date, or had nothing originally to do with, the birth of Christ (evergreen trees, door-to-door caroling, exchanging gifts, etc.)
So, if many of our most dearly held Christmas traditions do have roots in pagan and non-Christ related activities and beliefs, why should we continue to practice them?
The reason, I believe, is that Christ—and Christmas—is all about redemption.
The story of Joseph in the book Genesis is one of heartbreak, disappointment, but ultimately, redemption. In many ways, there can be parallels drawn between the story of Joseph’s redemption, and how we celebrate Christmas today.
After being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, imprisoned after being falsely accused, forgotten by a former friend after being promised a release, God eventually delivers Joseph from his misfortune and makes him into one of the most powerful men in the world—and helping a nation to survive famine. At the end of the story, Joseph once again meets his brothers—the same people that sold him into slavery—and tells them that despite their evil intentions, God had a bigger plan. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20, NIV).
God used the actions of Joseph’s brothers and all of the people who had wronged him to fulfill a great purpose in his life. Much like the traditions we observe today and associate with the birth of Christ, God has redeemed things rooted in human misunderstanding, to take on new meaning and glorify Him.
Before Christ came 2,000 years ago, many people did not know of the hope of a coming savior. They did not know of a God who would love them and save them from their sins. But, they did know that they wanted answers. While searching for truth, they devised their own traditions and rituals in an effort to please unseen gods. Though they did not know the truth, they knew that somewhere there was truth. Yes, their rituals may have been misguided, but, today, when we associate them with the birth of Christ, they take on new meaning. And much like the sinner who accepts salvation through Christ, their past is forgotten. Their purpose now takes on new meaning.
Christ is in the business of redeeming.
In the book of Acts, we read about the story of Paul visiting the city of Athens. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Paul was eventually invited to explain the good news of Christ to the philosophers of the city. But, unlike what some Christians tend to do at times, Paul did not start by condemning the people of Athens for their practice—he actually commends them, because he saw that they were searching for truth!
“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).
Later, Paul does asks them to repent for worshipping false gods, but he first uses what they already understand as a cultural entry point to help them understand the truth. Later, he even quotes one of their own poets to point back to God. “As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring” (Acts 17:28).
Paul saw that though many of the things that the people of Athens did were based on their own false understandings of god and life, God wanted to redeem that desire to find the greater truth. Paul realized that though idolatry was wrong, by examining why they worshipped the way they did, he could reveal to them the truth they had been looking for.
It’s important when talking about Christmas, to remember that God is still in the business of redeeming people’s understanding. In pagan times, life revolved around the agricultural calendar. Good crops and weather were literally a matter of life and death. This may be why in winter (a time of death in farming), they would use things like evergreens to remind themselves of fertility and life. They knew that something was responsible for sustaining them after the winter. Like the Athenians setting up an altar to “an unknown God”, they were looking for truth. Now, as Christians, we know who is responsible of for life and salvation. When we do things like exchange gifts, gather, feast and decorate, we realize that it is God who has been granting us blessings all along. He is the one who deserves the glory, and the ultimate gift—Jesus Christ being born to save us from our sins—is the reason these traditions have taken on such a powerful meaning.
Today, most of the original meanings behind the ancient traditions have been lost—they are empty, like alters to unknown gods. But like Paul, instead of just ignoring them, we need to proclaim what they are really all about: “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”
It is God’s graciousness that sustains life even through hard times, the same divine grace that allowed a child to born into the world and eventually save humanity from their sins. That is what we celebrate. That is what our traditions are really all about; they remind us ofGod’s greatest gift, and our call to share it with people that are hurting and in need.
After all, God is in the business of redeeming.
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