Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Season's Greetings, Happy Holidays, or Merry Christmas

Hello faithful readers, few though you may be,

Once again it is that season of the year when people fight over how we should greet one another. There are those traditionalists who staunchly believe that the only appropriate December greeting is "Merry Christmas." Others, of a more politically correct persuasion prefer to go with "Happy Holidays," a safer option in case the person being greeted turns out to be a Jew, a liberal African American, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or some other breed of cats.

While I personally like to hear "Merry Christmas" I don't think it is worth arguing over. If someone in a store wishes me "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays" I am going to accept their kind sentiments and respond, "...and to you as well. Thank you," rather than hurl back a harsh "...and a very Merry Christmas to you too!" as some Christians feel obligated to do in order to set people straight. I think that is downright rude.

I've observed that there is a tremendous amount of ignorance on the part of Christians about the celebration of Christ's birth. For one thing, most of the world celebrates the birth of Jesus on December 25th, not because that is when the actual event occurred but because it is the date that was mandated by the Roman Catholic Church centuries ago. The date that is commemorated by the Orthodox Churches is January 7th, which is equally off base. In reality, the date the western world uses for the Advent Celebration was chosen to overwrite and sanitize a pagan Roman holiday called Saturnalia, which commemorated the winter solstice and the birth of the sun god.

Many Bible scholars believe that Jesus was born toward the end of September before the weather turned cold. They base this on the time of John the Baptist's birth, six months before Jesus was born.  Others believe that Jesus' birth actually occurred in the Spring of the year, probably in late March or early April, during the lambing season when the shepherds were staying out all night with their flocks in order to help the ewes in their lambing. The climate of Israel is similar to the climates of say, Los Angeles, CA or Dallas, TX. December and January are the coldest months in Israel and in the mountainous region of Bethlehem the winter temperatures range from 30–50° degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, it gets cold there in the winter. One thing is for sure, no shepherd in his right mind would sleep on the ground out in a field in the month of December. All that to say... I don't know exactly when Jesus was born but let's be honest with ourselves and admit that our celebration of the Lord's birth in December is off schedule to say the least. But that is only half of the problem.

The word "Christmas" is a compound word derived from "Christ-Mass." Again, that harks back to Roman Catholic roots. The word Christmas comes from “Cristes Maesse”, an Old English phrase that means “Mass of Christ.” Now that is starting to creep me out! As a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant/Baptist anything with the word "mass" attached to it is suspect from the get-go. "Mass" is strictly a Catholic word and is not part of my theology. On page 537 of The Catholic Encyclopedia we read, “In the Christian law, the supreme sacrifice is that of the Mass… The supreme act of worship consists essentially in an offering of a worthy victim to God, the offering made by a proper person, as a priest, the destruction of the victim.” Notice the word, “victim” used twice in this passage. The Latin word for victim is “hostia” from which the word “host” is derived. The Mass, by definition, is a sacrifice involving a victim. That makes “Christ-Mass” a death sacrifice. That's messed up! December 25th is supposed to be a celebration of His birth, not a commemoration of His death.

Then when you stick the word "Merry" to "Christ-Mass" it gets even weirder. My Webster's New World Dictionary--Second College Edition defines "merry" as: "(1) full of fun and laughter; lively and cheerful; gay; mirthful. (2) conducive to fun and laughter; festive." It seems inappropriate to tie the word "merry" to a commemoration of Christ's death, which is what "Christ-Mass" is. Does that make sense?

So what are our other options? "Happy Holidays" might be a better bet. The modern word "holiday" is a compound word derived from the Middle English word "holidei" meaning "holy day." Now I can get on board with that! The celebration of the Advent of Messiah is a Holy Day in my opinion, not because it falls on December 25th or because it is tied to some Catholic Mass, but because it is the recognition that about 2,000 years ago God broke into our time and space world and clothed Himself with human flesh and lived among us for 30+ years to show us how much He really loves us. In theology we call that event "The Incarnation." The word "advent" simply means coming, or arrival.

God showed up dressed in a baby suit. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a little backwater town in a backwater country, born to a peasant couple with no place to even spend the night. Yet a few years later He went to the cross and became my Savior, and that is worthy of a big celebration!  You can call it "Christmas," "Holy Day," "Advent," or "Happy Birthday, Jesus, Day" and I'll still celebrate it because it is Good News, no matter how you look at it. That's what I think.

Happy to be greeted at all, no matter what words you use :)

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