I’m not talking about the embarrassing arguments people have about Christmas trees or whether it is heretical to say “Happy Holidays.” No, there is a much bigger reason that Christmas is a scandal- Jesus. The birth of Jesus was a history-altering, religion-creating event that we celebrate as Christmas. In our modern world, it has become very much a cultural holiday, with little significance put on the reason that we celebrate it, but if we knew the full story I believe we would be much more intrigued. The birth of the Christ Jesus was not an insignificant, quaint event. It was scandalous.
In our Western, post-modern culture Christmas has become an honored tradition, but many no longer celebrate it as the birth of Christ. It is a time when families come together, we laugh, we have fun. It’s also a time when we over-spend and drive up our blood pressure trying to navigate holiday traffic. Even those in the church debate how we should celebrate it. I had someone a couple days ago tell me that having a Christmas tree was idolatry. In churches, we have Christmas plays and Candlelight services. We argue over saying “merry Christmas” vs “Happy Holidays,” but to me it all just feels too common. It seems that we have forgotten the meaning of the holiday, and many may have never known the true reason in the first place.
To understand why the birth Jesus was so important, you have to know the gospel. Now you may be thinking, “I know that one! Jesus came to die for me...all that stuff.” Well you’d be right, but this isn't actually what the word Gospel originally meant. In fact, the word Gospel pre-dates the birth of Jesus and it had nothing to do with church or a specific music genre. Originally it was more of a political term than anything else. In the original Greek "gospel" is eingelion, it means the "good news" or "good tidings" and its where we get our english word evangelism. But it was not the good news of a church or a christian figure, but the good news of Caesar. Caesar Augustus is who started spreading his gospel. Whenever he would have a great victory or something he wanted every one to know, it would become "the gospel." He would have gospelers or evangelist go all throughout the empire and spread his "good news." One of the most famous uses of eingelion or gospel is The Priene Inscription. It reads as follows:
"Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings(gospel) [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him…"
So you see the Gospel didn't start out about Jesus, it started out as the good news about another savior- Caesar Augustus. The one whom, according to this inscription, there was never anyone as great nor would there ever be. This is where we get back to the scandal.
The scandal of Christmas starts because there was someone who came after Caesar Augustus, and he proclaimed that he was the true savior of the world. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. When the governor of the region in which he lived, Herod, heard of Jesus’ birth, he became very worried that there was a new king being born among the Jews. Herod was put into power by the Roman government, but had no birthright to the throne. Eventually, he even had all the males in that area under two-years old killed because he was scared of this coming King.
So, the first Christmas wasn't something that was a quaint little gathering of some shepherds and star-gazers, it was the introduction of a new king. That new king- Jesus, would be a polarizing figure all of his life. On one side, he would be hated by the Roman government because of the prophesies that he was the true king. And on the other side by his own people, because he didn't come in and take over in the way they wanted. He was eventually killed because he came to introduce a new kind of kingdom, The Kingdom of Heaven, not because he was trying to take the Roman throne.
Years after his death, one of his disciples who was enabled by the Holy Spirit sat down to write the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Mark. Mark doesn't write everything about Jesus’ life, and this has been very scrutinized. Why don't we know more about his early life? Or his family? This has a very simple explanation. In Mark’s day, paper was very scarce and extremely expensive. He wasn't writing on a Macbook at Starbucks so he had to be extremely specific with his words. In his opening remarks, known as the incipit, he brings up again what the Romans thought they had destroyed- the good news of Jesus Christ. Mark 1:1 reads “The beginning of the gospel(eingelion) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This sounds very similar to the inscription written about Caesar. When reading our English Bible we don't often understand this subversive text. But when those in the first century heard this statement, they would have immediately thought about Caesar. They would've been thinking “Is this Jesus truly greater than Caesar?”
If you can imagine, Mark is essential signing his death warrant as he writes these words. He is proclaiming that Caesar is not God. Caesar is not the Savior for the world. Caesar may have "good news" but Jesus’ news is better. The news that you don't have to bow down to a man and call him God but you can look up to the true God and have a personal relationship with him.
This is the scandal of Christmas. This is why when I think of Christmas, I don't think about reindeer or elves. I think about the cost, what it meant to the people in the first century to worship this God who went against everything they were being told to do. He told us to love our neighbors and pray for those who persecute us. He touched the untouchables, and cared for those that no one else did. Most of all, he rescued us from the dead-end lives we were living and brought us into a new life.
This is the Scandal of Christmas.