Theme: What the First Christmas Was Not
From this week’s Christmas lessons, we look at how God’s promises were fulfilled at the first Christmas, and what everyone must do in response to them.
Scripture: Luke 2:6, 7
Not long ago I received a funding letter from one of the large American relief organizations. It was trying to raise money for Albania, and it pointed out that for the first time in an entire generation the birth of Christ will be celebrated openly in that country. It said, “For many Albanians this is literally their ‘First Christmas.’”
That really is a remarkable thing. We know that the church has never really died out in any of the former Communist countries. In fact, what we don’t hear from the American media is the role Christians had in turning public opinion and eventually bringing about the death of communism in Poland, East Germany, Romania and the other Eastern bloc countries, at last even in the Soviet Union itself. Christmas was certainly observed quietly by these courageous believers. But it wasn’t an open celebration, because officially Christianity no longer existed. For the vast majority of the population, most of whom were not even born when communism and its atheistic philosophy took hold over seventy years ago, this year’s celebrations will literally be their “first Christmas” ever.
That got me thinking about others for whom this will be a first Christmas. It will be a first Christmas for many children, of course. As I grow older I am more and more delighted with children for whom the delights of human life are fresh, and I find myself smiling with satisfaction when I see their eyes open wide at the beautiful Christmas decorations in their homes, on the streets of our cities and in the stores.
There is another group for whom this Christmas is a first Christmas, though in an entirely different way. It is those who have become Christians during this past year and for whom this will be their first Christmas as a Christian. For them earlier Christmases were mere family times. This year they will be observing Christmas as what it really is, the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ, who came from the glory of heaven to become like us, die for us, and so save us from our sins.
I am sure that for most of you this is merely one Christmas among many. Yet I would like to think about the very first Christmas and see if we cannot recapture some of the wonder of that important day.
We will never see Christmas as it was unless we brush away some of the traditions that have attached themselves to it like barnacles over the centuries. For one thing, the first Christmas had no decorations. I suppose it is decorations more than any other single thing that most characterizes our public celebrations of Christmas—trees and bells and angels and holly and candles and countless other red and green and glittery things. There was none of this in Bethlehem on the first Christmas. In fact, the opposite was the case. In that day most of the world was a very drab place. To be sure, the palaces of the mighty may have been decorated somewhat, though not with Christmas finery. The temple in Jerusalem was a decorative masterpiece. Its gilded surface could be seen from miles around.
But this was not the case with peoples’ homes. They were simple, often rude shelters with very little furniture. There were no pictures, no works of art. And the cities were likewise drab. Especially stables! There was nothing at all festive or attractive about the place where Jesus was born.
Next to decorations we probably associate Christmas most with gifts. We spend most of the time between Thanksgiving and the 25th of December thinking about and buying presents for the dozens of people on our lists. This is not bad. It is a reflection of Christmas, since Christmas marks God’s gift to us of his Son. As Paul says, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15). But there was no exchange of presents among human beings on that first Christmas. Mary and Joseph were exhausted after their long trip to Bethlehem—especially Mary—and they were happy just to have a place to rest and for her to give birth to Jesus.
And what about families? We think of Christmas as a family time, and it usually is. But there was no family time for Joseph and Mary. They had left their families behind in Nazareth in order to obey the decree of Caesar Augustus to be registered for taxation in their ancestral home.
No, over against all the things that we associate with Christmas and probably think we could hardly do without, we see a poor couple, far from home in an indifferent crowded city, tired but extremely thankful that at least they had found overnight accommodation in a stable. It was in a time and in conditions like that and not in a season of celebration and decoration that the Lord of glory was born to us.
How does the general culture view Christmas?
Even for Christians, what are some of the traditions which can distract us from the true meaning of Christmas? How can you make these traditions reflect the first Christmas?
Application: How can you encourage someone you know to pursue a proper celebration of Christmas—whether a new believer or someone who has been a Christian for a long time?