A Christmas/New Year reflection

Officemoderator, news

Lorraine and I wish you, the members and friends of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, a ‘merry Christmas and a happy New Year’! May the Lord who has been with us be with us still, according to his promise, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’

Peter and Lorraine Phillips

Christmas, like happiness, is ‘different things to different people’. For some, ‘Christmas’ still retains its ‘traditional’ meaning – Christmas is a Christian festival celebrating Christ’s birth (‘Christmas = Christ’s mass); however, for many, perhaps most people, Christmas has become a secular family holiday focussed on family and friends and a mythical figure named Santa Claus.

This secularisation of Christmas is not new; it was one of the reasons why Christmas was banned in the 16th and 17th centuries. ‘All Christmas activities, including dancing, seasonal plays, games, singing carols, cheerful celebration and especially drinking were banned by the Puritan-dominated Parliament of England in 1644, with the Puritans of New England following suit. Christmas was outlawed in Boston, and the Plymouth colony made celebrating Christmas a criminal offense.’[1]

However, the abuse of good things is not a good reason to ban them – and the celebration of Christmas is a good thing; why not celebrate the faithfulness of God and the fulfilment of his promises in the birth of his Son? Why not make time to marvel at the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father, to rejoice that he was born to deal with the frustration and futility that is in the world because of death by dying for us? As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, ‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery’ (Heb 2:14-15).

So let us celebrate Christmas with adoration of God, with awe at the mystery of his love for us sinners and at the incarnation of his Son, God with us, and with joyful moderation in all the good things that are also the gifts of his grace – the blessings of gathering with family and friends and the enjoyment of good food and drink, and with thankful acknowledgement of all his mercies, including safety through the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic and the hope that COVID-19 will soon transition from pandemic to endemic — just another reminder that we live in a fallen world, and that heaven is not yet! And it just might be that if we are prayerful and alert, even secular Christmas might provide an opportunity to tell the good news of Christ’s coming to some lost, hopeless, despairing, neighbour, friend or family member.

Close on the heels of Christmas comes the end of one year and the beginning of another. The year that is ending, the year of our Lord 2021, has been a hard year, a year of lockdowns and closings of borders and quarantines, of COVID vaccines and vaccination controversies, with mandatory vaccinations and vaccine hesitancy and vaccine rejection and for some loss of employment. It has also been a year which has seen deep divisions emerge amongst Christians in regard to our obligation as Christians to obey the civil authorities. In short, it has been a year the like of which we pray that we may not see again. However, for us it has not all been bad, for it has been another year of proving the faithfulness of our God and of his ability to bring good out of our troubles – and so we end the year with praise and thanksgiving, for he is good: ‘Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations’.[2]

The year that stretches out before us could be seen as dark and threatening, especially for Christians and the Christian Church, as the tide of public opinion and of political endeavour continues to run against Christian teaching and practice, especially in with regard to sexual morality – and it may well be that in the not too far distant future we who follow the Saviour whose birth we celebrate at Christmas may well be called upon to maintain good conscience before God by following him in suffering for ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’.[3] But however dark and threatening the future may appear to sight, the right way for us as Christians to face the future is not by sight, but by faith, to remember that ‘the future is as bright as the promises of God’[4] – and those promises are exceedingly bright, for they are guaranteed by his faithfulness.

They are bright for us personally, for what was true of the Christians of Corinth is true also of us; God who has called us will sustain us to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus: ‘I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge – even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you – so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.’[5] And they are bright for the church, for our Lord has promised ‘I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’.[6]

How should we approach a future that is ‘as bright as the promises of God’? Firstly, by remembering that our mandate as those who follow the Christ who did not come to be served but to serve is ‘as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone and especially to those who are of the household of faith’.[7] Worldly wisdom is to be served; Christian wisdom is to serve others. Let us enrich ourselves and others in this New Year by seeking out opportunities to be useful, especially in serving Christ and his people in the church, both in our congregations and in the wider church. Secondly, by remembering that we who have been called into the fellowship of the Son of God are to ‘walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’.[8] And thirdly, by remembering that ‘we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil’ – and so, with the apostle Paul, and with the Lord Jesus, always make it our  aim to please him. [9]

May your Christmas 2021 celebrations be worthy of him whose coming we celebrate, and may your New Year be enriched with the peace and joy that is found in close fellowship with him and with all who love him and in the sure and certain hope of his appearing a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.[10]

Peter Phillips

Moderator, December 2021

[1] https://www.livescience.com/32891-why-was-christmas-banned-in-america-.html

[2] Psalm 100:4-5

[3] Jude v. 3

[4] Variously attributed to William Carey and Judson Taylor

[5] I Corinthians 1:4-9

[6] Matthew 16:18

[7] Galatians 6:10

[8] Ephesians 4:1-3

[9] 2 Corinthians 5:9-10; John 8:29

[10] Hebrews 9:28