Christmas time is here again! Hurray! This makes for wonderful memories and gifts, both past and present, time spent with family and friends, all while celebrating Christ’s birth. And, of course, Christmas makes for some interesting issues to discuss here.
Christmas has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been able to remember anything. There has never been a time that I don’t recall those shining lights, gifts, potpourri, red and green, Advent candles, Nativity scenes, the Christmas tree, and yes, even the anticipation of gifts left overnight Christmas Eve by some magical mythical figure in a red furry suit.
All of it was happy. It brought my family together with traditions and memories, whether past or being created. Altogether, it was so good, and such a picture of God’s grace.
Then came an annoying Phase of mine, in my early teens. It was a Phase of Snarkiness.
I’m not sure how long it lasted, maybe less than a few weeks. But I think it started when I found out the Truth About Santa Claus.1 Based on that, along with my being sort-of, er, subconsciously impressed by all those Spiritual homeschooling families who didn’t have Santa come to the house, I began to wonder: was it really right and Spiritual to have a Christmas tree? And wasn’t Santa Claus a lie?
Sigh. If time travel were ever invented, I would go back and probably be just as obnoxious now as I was then, while lecturing my obnoxious self. Some of what I would say would be based on this week’s Wednesday column, about a Bible passage being misused about Christmas trees.
Yet I wonder if even those assumptions derive from broader, worse views about the nature of objects, as compared to the nature of humans.
Robbing Paul to pay Pelagius
Naturally, after that column, I got to thinking about the connection between Christmas trees and Pelagianism. (I would like to stress that I don’t normally do this. Maybe it’s just that I have a lot of pent-up amateur-theologian-style energy that would otherwise be spent on, say, seminary.2)
That connection also has to do with two separate reactions to this column’s title. Is this a good title, or a bad title — by which I mean sinful? If I were saying it angrily, using God’s name in vain, it would be bad. But the way I mean it now is literal, and in a right context: Hug a Christmas tree, for God’s sake! And I’m using His Name, for God’s sake, literally — not in vain.
Similarly, is a Christmas tree good, or bad? Answer: it depends on how you’re using it. Are you using it as a vain thing, or with Godward purpose? That depends on one’s heart.
That’s where Pelagianism can interfere. That way of thinking, originated by a British layman in the fourth century, claims that humans aren’t afflicted with a sin nature from Adam’s and Eve’s sin. Instead, we must almost repeat their decision in our choices, with a neutral nature.
The most extreme view of this isn’t much different from a non-Christian who would claim people aren’t basically good or evil, but neutral: what causes sins is our environment.
Pelagian assumptions are rampant in some Christians. Among those would seem a spinoff notion that things in the world can be evil. That skews the Bible’s teaching that it is not humans who are neutral; objects are. And objects are not naturally evil; humans are. Jesus said that putting something into one’s body, such as food, doesn’t cause evil or defilement; real evil comes from within (Mark 7: 14-23). Paul told the Corinthians that meat cooked in honor of idols is neutral, because God is the only real God; an idol doesn’t exist and is a nonissue.3
So I have started to wonder: how many Christians have this kind of objects-as-evil view when it comes to movies? Or music? Or Santa Claus, or Christmas trees, or celebrating Christmas at all?
Did I have that view in other ways when I was growing up? Absolutely I did. I even made little self-righteous lists of things that were Good and things that were Bad.4 The Bad things included Batman, Barbie dolls, and Ninja Turtles.5 The list of Good things included — included —
Hmm, come to think of it, I never had a list of things that were Good. That might have helped.
I wish I had known better at the time — I think even a child could understand this — that things by themselves are neither good nor bad. This week I thought about this even more because of a little word study about the Hebrew term hebel. It means “vanity,” something pointless, useless. All is hebel, the author of Ecclesiastes would have said. And in Deuteronomy 32:21, God doesn’t just say that idols are vain, He says they are vanities. It’s the same word.
It is not the statues, poles, trees, whatever, that cause evil. People cause evil, misusing things.
If I had known that more when I had my little I-wonder-if-Christmas-things-are-evil Phase, it would have saved me a lot of trouble. Instead of letting other Christians send those guilt vibes my way (even if they didn’t mean to, they didn’t do much to prevent that from happening), I would have felt sorry for them, that they couldn’t enjoy these symbols of grace.
Christ is born, hug a tree
Still, it turns out that without creating a time-paradox of trying to grow myself up in retrospect, I grew up (at least in that way) anyway. Thank God, I matured past those faux-adult, faux-spiritual, should-I-be-“holier”-than-thou attempts — at least in this specific respect.
Years later, one of the first things I planned to ask my special friend, during our dating6, was how she and her family had celebrated Christmas.
And I couldn’t help but be thrilled at her responses. They put up lights outside. They sang carols and played Christmas CDs real loud, decorating indoors. Even Santa Claus had come to her house. They had a Christmas tree, and loved it all, while celebrating the birth of the newborn King Who does, and will, bring His people joy.
Like my family, they had enjoyed these symbols of God’s grace, so different from subtle views of performance-driven Christianity. And they learned even more later about His specific grace.
Two years after that discussion, we’re married and celebrating our first Christmas together. Joyously we began playing Christmas music on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. We budgeted for decoration items, including outside lights, indoor candles, ornaments, tinsel, garlands. At the local megastore we found the perfect artificial Christmas tree on sale. Elated, we bought it.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, with Christmas music playing and instant French-vanilla cappuccino steaming, we unpacked that first tree and put it together. We strung lights, hung ornaments, enjoyed the time together. We rejoiced in Christ’s birth and His gifts in our lives — even while not thinking specifically about the Christmas story. We shared in that experience and, no doubt, made memories for years to come, to share with family, present and future.
And yes, when we’d finally put it together, and turned all other lights off and the tree on, with its colorful glows sparkling, I even hugged that Christmas tree — for God’s sake.
Thank Him for making objects, even Christmas trees, that by themselves are worthless and vain, but with His grace can be used for His glory. And thank Him even more for turning me, a worthless object of His wrath (Ephesians 2: 1-10), into someone who can show His glory too.
- My previous view might have lasted until the present day, had I not found the receipt for that toy in my house’s basement. Apparently Santa’s elves had left it there. ↩
- I’ll never go to seminary. That’s partly because the Hebrew and Greek scare me. ↩
- Yet Paul also said he would avoid eating such meat before someone who had a genuine issue with it and would view this action as a sin (1 Corinthians 8). Paul shows two sides of grace. ↩
- Note to my mother: I am not slamming my little-kid self unilaterally; just having some self-deprecating and amused fun at that silliness in me! ↩
- Younger self: I still don’t care for the latter two, but Batman is cool. (Ducks the pieces flying from the time-paradox explosion I just created) ↩
- Or “courtship,” if you prefer. ↩