A common theme in the secular press around Christmas time is that it is a pagan festival, something extra-biblical and indeed unbiblical. A celebration from which, perhaps, a ‘true Christian’ might distance himself; and in which the atheist can happily indulge safe in the knowledge that it is as hollow for Christians as it is for him. So frequently is this trotted out that it has entered the popular psyche with an annual assault both on Christianity and on belief in God and Christ itself through the ‘intellectual’ press and radio programmes. The message has been accepted so readily that a Puritan led government banned Christmas entirely in 1647, and even todays Christian publications run stories which condemn Christmas and those who keep it.In terms of finding related customs amongst pagan celebrations, the detractors from Christmas make a well argued case. That there are such relations should not be a surprise. When we celebrate, it does not matter who we are, we have the same general tendencies. We enjoy song, dance, food, friends and families. Lights, candles, fires, beautiful spectacles and cheer in the winter months don’t need pagan beliefs to come about; just human nature. To trace Christmas unquestioningly to pagan practice is like saying that people wore thick coats in winter in pre-Christian times, and hence that Christians who wear thick coats in the winter are indulging in thinly-disguised pagan ritual.
Another prong of the attack on Christmas is to declare loudly that Christmas is not declared nor is it even hinted at by the Bible. That’s true on the surface. Search a Bible from cover to cover and you will not find a single mention of Christmas. Then again, there isn’t a single mention of the name Jesus Christ in the Old Testament and still he was clearly discussed, described and predicted. When it comes to prophesy, names are not everything.
So, are they right to say there is no mention of Christmas? Well, I think that depends on what Christmas means, or rather, what we mean when we celebrate Christmas. The traditional answer is that we celebrate the Birth of Christ – yet as the Gospel so boldly proclaims – Christ existed from before the beginning of time (John 1:1). If Christ existed before the beginning of time, how could he have been born so late in Bethlehem? It is clear then that we do not celebrate Christ coming to life as we do when we celebrate our own birthdays, rather we celebrate something much more important – and I am going to discuss what that might be.
Back in Old Testament times, all God’s chosen people dwelt in slavery in the land of Egypt. There had been great promises made by God to Abraham, yet they were really not enjoying great blessing under the cruel rule of Pharaoh. Things were bad and getting worse, and given that Pharaoh was killing all male children at birth there seemed to be no future for the Israelites as a race. Then something really amazing happened – God came to visit his people and remembered his promise. God himself brought his people out of slavery and dwelt amongst them. Just imagine it – Almighty God himself, creator of the Heavens and the Earth, all powerful – dwelling amongst man?
Whilst the Israelites were wondering in the desert, God had dwelt in a tent, the same kind of dwelling that the people of Israel used. Later when they were settled, King David asked God if he could build a temple for God to dwell in; and it was David’s son, King Solomon, who built one. The temple then became a very real sign of God amongst man, a defining mark of God’s chosen people and most importantly a symbol of God amongst us. The Temple, in so much as it was the place of God’s presence, represented God Himself.
The prophet Amos, prophesying whilst the temple still existed, predicts not only the destruction of Judah but also that the booth of David would be raised up again from its ruins and repaired as it was in the days of old. By the booth of David is meant the Temple, which was built in accordance with God’s promise to David. Later history shows that the temple was indeed destroyed, and eventually rebuilt, yet the second temple never reached the glory of the former as was promised in Amos.
In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
So what of this word ‘booth’? Well, the booth, or sukkah, has a very special significance in Jewish culture. It essentially refers to a temporary shelter, such as a simple shed created for animal housing or a dwelling-tent similar to those used by nomadic desert communities even today. Genesis 33:17 describes Jacob building these sukkah for his animals when he made his own dwelling. There is perhaps no perfect English translation for the term, and booth whilst it may be a technical match does not bring the same meaning as it is used in modern english.
To Jews, whether in Biblical times or now, the sukkah is closely linked to sukkot, an annual festival also known as the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles. This festival is peculiar in that it involves building sukkah in remembrance of when both God and man dwelt together in tents within the desert. To this day, observant Jews recite a prayer at this feast, based on Amos 9:11, which translates as “May the Merciful One raise up for us the fallen sukkah of David”.
Interestingly, the prophet Zechariah talks about sukkot, and declares that in the day of the Lord all peoples will keep sukkot. So, that means us, the non-Jewish believers, as well. Yet, sukkot was only prescribed to be kept by Jews, in remembrance of their own specific history. At first glance it would seem illogical for us to keep sukkot as it’s not about us, however perhaps the key to this verse lies in careful consideration of what sukkot represents and what it means.
Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against
Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of
hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths.
I suggest that the real meaning of sukkot is a celebration not so much of the people of Israel dwelling in tents, but of God coming to dwell amongst his chosen people. It is a festival symbolic of a renewal of the often fractured relationship between God and man in a very visible and physical way. It is not insignificant that Solomon celebrated sukkot immediately following the completion of the Temple in which God had come to dwell (1 Kings 8:2). Later, it was chosen for celebrating the recapture and rededication of the temple in II Maccabees, a specific observance still recalled today in the Jewish celebration of Channukah. So, sukkot is bound up in the concept of this renewal of this very real and physical link between God and Man.
So, it does seem very fitting to recall the verse from Amos on the restoration of the sukkah of David; and more so when we reflect upon later history. Importantly, the same prophet who declares that all will celebrate sukkot also talks about who it is that will restore the temple – none other than Christ. Zechariah 6:12-13 describes Christ in terms of a man whose name is ‘the Branch’ who was to rebuild the Temple, bear royal honor and rule. That Christ restored the temple and is the branch is clear from his Gospel promise to raise the temple after three days, meaning his own self. Interestingly, when Amos predicts that the temple will be raised, the word he uses for ‘raise’ is the same used by Isaiah 26:19 when he talks about the resurrection of the dead (Isaiah 26:19; …together with my dead body shall they arise).
Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD. It is he who shall build the temple of the LORD and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne.
So; do we know any more about the branch? Isaiah 4 talks about the Branch, and then states there will at that time be a booth “for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain” (Isaiah 4:2). What could this booth (sukkah) be, but of Christ himself? Is the coming of the Branch and the booth not clearly the coming of Christ? Can it be an accident then that Christ was born in a place with a manger; a dwelling of animals, probably a sukkot in the sense of those built by Jacob?
If the celebration of sukkot is indeed the celebration of a renewed close and even physical presence of God dwelling with man, then it is no great leap to suggest that it points towards none other than the coming of Christ. That event which we term his birth, but which is in fact God remembering his promise and sending Christ our great Redeemer and Saviour to dwell amongst us.
When we read Zechariah 14:16 perhaps might also think of Christmas, when every year people from every nation “go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast”. We should not make light of the birth of Christ by suggesting a focus on his death and resurrection, for that is to miss the great act of God in remembering us.
I contend that the greater significance of the Christmas story is not the story of birth and swaddling bands, but of God coming to dwell amongst man in a very real and physical way. This is our story, our history, our own spiritual ancestry; Christmas is our celebration of dwelling with God, our own sukkot.
Sukkot is known to the Jews as the Season of our Rejoicing, after Zechariah 8:16, in which it is declared a season of ” joy and gladness and cheerful feasts.” I don’t hold pagan beliefs but I am certainly going to celebrate Christmas this year with joy and gladness and cheerful feasts!
Dear Reader, have a blessed, safe and joyful Christmas.