And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
If you're still with me, you will remember what we've discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this important topic. History has shown us the worship of various forms of the pagan gods (and the myths that surrounded their births); the chief among them, the Sun God. Such worship predated Christ and His Church by 2000 years. The Moabites worshipped the pagan god Chemosh. The Ammonites worshipped Molech; the Babylonians worshipped Tammuz.
And keep in mind that a nativity celebration for pagan gods was observed near the winter solstice in both Syria and Egypt. Later, some 400 years before Christ, the Mithraic religion, centering on the Persian sun god Mithras, provided the foundation for the Christmas celebration. Mithraism became very popular in the Roman Empire, and many elements of its worship survive today in Roman Catholicism.
When God called Abraham out of that pagan world, He commanded that His people would worship Him in a different manner. They were to worship Him with feasts and celebrations that would be holy and sanctified. In fact, God declared that His feasts were to be observed among all generations of His followers, for all time (Leviticus 23:4,14). These same feasts would become an integral part of worshipping God in the First Century Church, when both Jews and Gentile converts were faithful to His commandment.
As Christianity spread across the known world in the Second Century, the Jewish influence and traditions were at first slowly diminished; and then abruptly halted in the Third Century when the Roman Emperor Constantine combined the pagan worship of his Sun God with his newfound Christianity, and removed the Lord's holy feasts from Christian worship. In this post, I will relate how much he hated the Jews and how that influenced the new practices he instituted to separate the Christian faith from its Jewish roots.
Remember that Jewish Believers were still a part of Constantine's Christianity, which is now declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in 324 AD. Only now, because Constantine is under the false assumption that it was the Jews that killed Jesus, he outlaws any Jewish practices, customs, holidays, or feasts in the new state religion.
It is at this point that most Christians will balk at what I'm going to say. But you cannot dismiss this information simply because it offends your heart or your emotions. You must research it yourself and then determine how you are going to continue to honor God. So here goes ... To further separate Christianity from its Jewish foundation, Constantine developed a new celebration that would occur around the midwinter festivals that pagans were familiar with; and thus base the new state religion of Christianity around a familiar theme. And because he knew the Jews did not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, he declared that this new holiday would celebrate the birthday of Jesus, the Son of God. So with the Lord's feasts outlawed, and a holiday that would offend the Jews, Constantine and his state-run Church effectively destroyed the relationship between the Christian Church and its Jewish roots.
I urge you to research the pagan holidays of "Saturnalia" and "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti" (which means "birthday of the unconquered Sun"), both of which were celebrated on December 25th, when the Romans thought the Winter Solstice took place. It's not hard to see how easy it was for Constantine to incorporate his "created" birthday of Christ with the birthday celebration of his pagan god (the Saturnalia). It made it easy for him to merge facets of the Christian faith with accepted pagan practices, and keep the hated Jews separate and isolated.
If you doubt the veracity of this concept, consider these facts ... the Catholic Encyclopedia is explicit in their writings: Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts. It is the early Church Fathers that shed the brightest light on this controversy, and show us how the celebration of Christmas was established. Tertullian wrote, The pagan Romans clad their door posts with green and branching laurels. In the Saturnalia, presents come and go. There are gifts and banquets … yet Christians should have no acquaintance with the festivals of the pagans.
Tertullian also wrote, On your pagan days of gladness, we [Christians] neither cover our doorposts with wreaths, nor intrude upon the day with lamps…We are accused of lower sacrilege because we do not celebrate along with you the pagan holidays…You Christians have your own registers, your own calendar [the Lord's Feasts]. You have nothing to do with the festivities of the world. In fact, you are called to the very opposite…
Tertullian also noted that no self-respecting pagan would join in "Christian" celebrations: "Oh, how much more faithful are the heathen to their religion, who take special care to adopt no solemnity from the Christians. For, even if they had known them, they would not have shared the Lord's Day or Pentecost with us. For they would fear lest they would appear to be Christians. Yet, we are not apprehensive that we might appear to be pagans!"
And then there is St. Augustine [the fifth-century Catholic theologian] who exhorts his Christian brethren not to celebrate that solemn day like the heathen on account of the sun, but on account of Him who made the sun. What is as convicting for me is the following statement in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: "Christmas originated at a time when the cult of the sun was particularly strong at Rome. This theory finds support in some of the Church Fathers contrasting the birth of Christ and the winter solstice. Though the substitution of Christmas for the pagan festival cannot be proved with certainty, it remains the most plausible explanation for the dating of Christmas" (1967, Vol. 3, p. 656).
I could regale you with numerous quotes from early Church Fathers, but this should be enough to at least cause you to research this important issue on your own. I don't have all the answers, nor do I claim to--- in fact, I have questions. Did the fading expectation of Christ's imminent return make the contrived celebration of His birth more appealing? And what do God and Jesus think about our man-derived celebrations? Re-read the Scripture at the top of this post. "In vain" is defined as "having no meaning or likelihood of fulfillment." The Holy Spirit is telling me that if I worship Jesus in a manner based on pagan celebrations, that it has no meaning to Him. This is a personal decision on my part, and a matter of obedience.
Perhaps you do not agree, and that is between you and God. It is a matter of conscience for each individual. I would simply ask you to study His Word and not decide based on what your heart tells you. We all carry such warm, fuzzy memories of Christmas in our hearts, and it is difficult to think that anything that wonderful could offend God. But remember what Jeremiah 17:9 says: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked... Is the heart really a good judge of what God desires of us?
Next week, we will finish up this discussion and take a look at how Christmas has been promoted down through the centuries and how it has become so entrenched in our culture. Thank you for being receptive to this message, and I invite your comments and discussion.