Friday, December 24, 2010

The Meaning and Significance of Christmas

The Magi (three wise men from the East, on the left)
and a shepherd (right) paying homage to
new-born saviour Jesus Christ in Bethlehem

Painting (Toronto: December 24, 2010) © Joachim Romeo D'Costa

Today is December 25, the day of Christmas. Christmas conjures up an image of gaiety, fun, festivity, colourful costumes, exchange of gifts, and gastronomic feasting in our minds. It overshadows any speck of sorrow, pain and deprivation that we might experience in our day to day life.

The word 'Christmas' comes from two Old English words Cristes Maesse, which mean the "Mass of Christ" -- in other words, the liturgical service of Christ. These two words were first used publicly in 1038 A.D. The shorter written form of 'Christmas' is 'X-Mas.' In Greek language, 'X' stands for 'Christ' (although written with 'X', 'X-mas' in English should be pronounced as 'Christmas').

Christmas commemorates the incarnation of the second person of the Blessed Trinity at the birth of Jesus Christ. The Gospel (of the Bible) mentions that "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14). God became a human being to save men and women from sin and live among them. Without losing his divine nature Jesus assumed human nature. He is true God and true man. After the Easter or Resurrection of Christ, Christmas is the second most important celebration in the Christian Churches.

God's Promise of a Messiah

After their creation, the first man and woman -- Adam and Eve -- were told to enjoy everything in the Garden of Eden except the fruits of a particular tree, called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God had given the free will to Adam and his wife. Satan, one of the angels who were previously chased out of the heaven by God because of their extreme pride and free will, took the opportunity to tempt the newly-created human beings. Satan told them to eat the forbidden fruit and thereby be equal to God in power and wisdom. Due to their free will, Adam and Eve decided to defy God and listen to Satan's alluring advice. Ultimately, they ate the fruit and became awar of their disobedient behaviour against God. Thus, sin entered mankind for the first time. This sin is called the Original Sin, which automatically passes from one human generation to another.

Although God threw Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, he did not totally abandon them or their descendants. He promised to send a Messiah or Saviour to same mankind from sin. God told Satan: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel," (Genesis 4:15 of the Bible). Prophet Isiah also prophesied: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel [God with us]," (Isiah 7:14). This prophecy was fulfilled later and we find proof of that in Matthew 1: 20-24. About 800 years before the birth of Jesus, prophet Micah prophesied (Micah 5:1) that the Messiah the Messiah would be born in Jerusalem and it was ultimately realized (Matthew 3:1-3). There were other promises of God and prophecies of prophets regarding the Messiah and all of them were fulfilled with the birth and life of Jesus Christ. The word 'Christ' means 'anointed.' St. Peter says: "God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power," (Acts of the Apostles 10:38).

December 25 Assigned As Christ's Birthday

No one knows the exact day or date of Jesus' birth. There is no written record of it. The December 25 that we observe as the birthday of Jesus had been arbitrarily fixed by the authority of the Catholic Church. The early Christians and the Catholic Church did not bother to observe Jesus' birth. St. Mark's Gospel was the first book of the New Testament of the Bible written in about 65 A.D. The other Gospels and books were written later on. None of these books mentions of Christians observing Christmas.

The Romans were pagans, worshipping numerous gods and goddesses. Their empire comprised of countries (most of Europe, West Asia and North Africa) around the Mediterranean Sea. In Rome, these pagans observed the annual festival of the Roman god Saturn, called Saturnalia. This started on December 17 and culminated on December 25. In these days, the Romans were allowed to be rowdy indulging in unbridled behaviour of eating, drinking, and sexual activities. In 274 A.D., Roman emperor Aurelian designated December 25 as the birthday of the sun god, Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun). This day also fell on the winter solstice. When Romans became Christians, some of these cultural traditions, although inappropriate for Christianity, continued among them. To counter these pagan practices and divert the Christians' focus and attention to Christ, the Catholic Church in the early 4th century designated December 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ. From that time onwards Christmas is being celebrated on that date.

Numerous religious and social Christmas customs and traditions (such as Advent preparations, Christmas wreaths, Christmas trees, Christmas gifts, Christmas decorations, Santa Claus, Christmas carols, Christmas plays, and Christmas feastings) gradually developed in different parts of the world.

The Significance of Christmas

Christmas is important to the Christians, because:

  • With the birth of Christ, God's promise of a Saviour is fulfilled. The salvation history also comes to a full circle.
  • The prophecies of the Old Testament prophets and the announcement of St. John the Baptist regarding the birth and life of Jesus Christ are also fulfilled.
  • Jesus was born in a poor and humble environment. He did not come as a king or conqueror. His poverty and humility made him easily acceptable to the majority of the people who also live in poverty. They, therefore, could easily empathize with him. His lifelong example of neighbourly love makes a significant impression in the hearts of people.
  • After coming to the earth, Jesus preached the good news of salvation. Through his death he expiated for our sins and opened the door for the forgiveness of and reconciliation with God. Thus salvation became accessible to mankind.
Let us observe the Christmas in a befitting manner. Let Christ be the focus of Christmas. Let Christ be alive in our heart and soul. May the joy of Christmas fill our hearts.

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