Greetings in the name of Him who came to save His people from their sins!
As I type I can feel the leftover turkey and yams churning in my stomach. We have much to be thankful for, and the upcoming Advent season gives us even more reason to be thankful, for it is this time of year that we pause to remember God’s gift of His Son Jesus Christ, God from all eternity, conceived and born in due time, predestined before the foundation of the world to come as the Savior of Sinners.
Although the Bible does not fix for us the date of the birth of Christ, Christmas is an ancient tradition in the Christian Church. The date of December 25th began to be observed in Rome in the 4th century. (The 4th century church father John Chrysostom notes that there was a longstanding tradition already in the Church that Jesus was born during the winter time dating back long before this time.) Around the same period, in the Eastern churches of Greece and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Epiphany was starting to become a popular festival on January 6th celebrating Jesus’ birth, the visit of the wise men, and baptism by John in the Jordan River. While the celebration of Epiphany spread westward, the celebration of Christmas spread eastward and southward to the churches.
In this period of time there was a great controversy in the Christian church due to a teaching of a preacher in Alexandria, Egypt named Arius that from all eternity “the Son was not.” He taught that only the Father was the eternal God and that Jesus the son was a lesser god who had been created by the Father at a point in time prior to creation. (This doctrine is similar to the teaching of some modern groups, for example the “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”) Arius’ teaching caught on like wildfire because many people found it easier to understand and accept than the biblical teaching on the Trinity: One God in Three Persons (cf. Matthew 28:19.) But God in His providence raised up great preachers to oppose this teaching, men like the Greek fathers Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and John “golden mouth” Chrysostom. They knew that without a Savior who is both fully God and fully man, with two distinct natures in one person, there could be no reconciliation of a holy God with sinful man, and there would be no salvation. These church fathers thought that a new festival on December 25th would provide a valuable opportunity to proclaim the truth about the person of Christ, that God the Son, being fully God from all eternity with the Father and the Spirit, took to Himself a full yet previously un-impersonated human nature, and became man, in the womb of the virgin Mary. They used Christmas as a defense against Arius and his false teaching about Christ. It was Gregory Nazianzus who said in reference to John 1:1, “What better way to celebrate Him who is the Word, than by preaching the word?” Christmas caught on in churches all over the world as a time to hear sermons on the incarnation of Christ, and in the end, it was probably one of the great influences which wound up leading to the decision of the Council of Nicaea in favor of the biblical teaching on who Christ is. (At the council, according to tradition, there was one minister from the city of Myra in Asia Minor named Nicholas, who is said to have struck Arius in the face during a council session when he said, “The Son was not” in an attempt to knock some sense into him. Nicholas was defending the biblical doctrine of Christ being fully God, and was also known for being generous to the poor. He is the origin of the “Santa Claus” stories.) The results of this council were encodified in the Nicene Creed, an important and historical statement of the doctrine of Christ and the Trinity.
As we reflect on Christ during this season, let us be thankful to God for leading His Church to the truth about who He is, guiding her through history, and remember that salvation is only in Him who being God from all eternity, became man in the womb of the virgin Mary, was born in a stable, and continues to be God and man, in one person, with two distinct natures forever, the Mediator between God and sinful man.