not your ordinary holiday

For over two-and-a-half centuries after Jesus’ birth that Silent Night in Bethlehem, there was no such thing as a Christmas (“Christ’s Mass”).  From the birth of Jesus until the 300s A.D., they had nothing like what we would consider an official Christian holiday.  For nearly 3 centuries under the under the umbrella of Roman power and civilization, Christ-followers spent December 25th in the safety and comforts of their homes or places of secret worship as just another day.  Of course, that’s not to say that the millions around them in the Roman Empire were doing the same thing as them on December 25th.  The typical Roman on December 25th would have been likely exhausted and hung-over from a raucous week of celebrating Saturnalia (pronounced satt-er-NAYL-yuh). Saturnalia was a Roman celebration over 500 years old by the point of the first Christmas Holy Day Church Service.  The starry night that found Jesus as a Babe lying in a manger in Bethlehem of Judea, the Romans had already been celebrating Saturnalia nearly as long as we’ve been celebrating the 4th of July as Americans.[1]

This ancient Roman festival was a long-standing celebration of—yep, you guessed it—Saturn.  (Not the planet w/the rings, though, but the mythical god…Saturn.)  Saturn was the deity known by Romans as the son of Uranus and Gaia—Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth).  Saturn: the son of Heaven and Earth. But–as the mythological story of Saturn goes, the son defeated the father, Saturn overturning Uranus, for the chief attention of and supreme power in the Universe.

So, for a period of time, Saturn ruled the whole shooting-match.  Until prophecy foretold of a day when Saturn would be overturned by one of his own children—just as he had done with HIS father.  So, to counteract this prophecy of his children taking his power away in the future, he came up with a plan.  Each time Saturn’s wife, Ops, would bring a child into the world, Saturn would grab them and eat them. He was determined to never have one of his children lead a heaven-shattering coup over him…so he made his children into entrees.

…so, 6 children, 6 meals.  [2]

Well, not exactly.  Ops, his wife, with their 6th child grew angry that he kept killing her babies.  So, she took her next chilld—a son named Jupiter—and hid him.  She put a baby-sized rock in a basket, swaddled the “baby rock” in blankets, and acted like it was his son.  She then handed the basket to Saturn, and he—in turn, ate it—and was satisfied that he had eaten Jupiter when he had only eaten a rock.  Jupiter would go on to fulfill the prophecies by martialing forces against his father, defeating all the Titans, and assuming the role of Ruler of the Universe.

But, for a time, Saturn had been the god of everything.  And, as Romans would describe him–other than eating his children–as gods go, Saturn was a pretty great god.  So much so, that after his son Jupiter took the throne, Saturn—they say—fled to a little area later to be known as Rome and established the Golden Age, a time of perfect peace and harmony on earth, which lasted as long as he reigned.  In memory of this Golden Age, the Festival of Saturnalia was held every year for 7 days beginning on December 17th. (During the Winter Solstice.)

During this time no war could be declared—peace on earth.

But, it was also about enjoying friends and loved-ones—goodwill to men.

The celebration included the closing down of work and school.  They would give and receive gifts, make special desserts, and go to one another’s homes for meals.  But it was also a week-long abandonment of control and acceptable behavior.  The Roman world would use Saturnalia as an easy excuse to throw late-into-the-night parties filled with drunkenness and gambling and rank behavior.  That was the dark side of Saturnalia—much like commercialism and hedonism mark our Christmas-to-New-Years week in our day.

What was interesting, though, about the observance of Saturnalia was that THE CELEBRATION WAS CENTERED AROUND THE SOCIAL ORDER BEING FLIPPED ON ITS HEAD.

During that week, slaves and masters would exchange clothes and positions.  The poor would be rich.  The powerless would suddenly become powerful.  They would eat at the same table…but, masters would ceremonially serve their slaves their meal.  Slaves would be the masters…and masters the servants.  Of course, the spirit of it wasn’t to gives slaves the license to be harsh, but to demonstrate some semblance of EQUALITY—even if it was only passing.

The catch was, that week would come to an end.  And everything would return as it was.  REALITY CHECK.  Saturnalia didn’t stick. Thus, by December 25, grim realities were fully re-set for THE ORDINARY PERSON who didn’t enjoy rich blessings the other 358 days of the year.  And hangovers were just beginning to subside for the rich who had partied too long and too hard.  THEIR DECEMBER 25th WAS OUR JANUARY 2nd.  The great gap between the haves and the have nots didn’t change.  The ordinary got stuck back in their places.

You see, that’s the contemporary context into which Christians first began to try and celebrate the birth of the Babe of Bethlehem in the 3rd-century in the Roman Empire.  Christmas was not a popular holiday early-on in the culture of that day until THE POWER OF THE STORY’S TRANSFORMATIVE TRUTH AND EFFECT grabbed them.  When the everyday person of that day realized that the story of the Advent wasn’t just a short-lived week of wishful thinking, it was a game-changing, history-altering, heart-transforming, culture-reversing story of a Babe born in a place as obscure as a barn whose crib was a feeding trough…born to poor parents…in a dusty, forgotten place whose day had come and gone over a thousand years before…celebrated by very ordinary people.

…as ordinary a people as single moms and as low as shepherds.

This story changed everything.

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant.

6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her first child, a Son.  She wrapped Him snugly in strips of cloth and laid Him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among themshepherds, not poets or kings or song-writers or historians or great philosophers or priests.  SHEPHERDS—and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize Him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem!   Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing Him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this Child.  18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often.  20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. [3]

The story of the First Christmas emerged in a highly unusual place among very unlikely people.

Instead of being born in a Palace, Jesus was born in a barn.

Instead of the Messiah being born…

…among poets where careful note could be taken of each amazing detail and given their own special lyric or line…

…or among historians who could place the Messiah into the bigger picture and make sure that all was recorded as it happened with scientific precision…

…or among those of royalty who could give Him the proper clothing…

…or among priests who could espouse the theology or the orthodoxy or the spirituality of the Moment…

…Jesus’ first visitors were cattle, goats, and shepherds.

God loves the ordinary person.  He makes them into unlikely heroes.  Story-tellers of the amazing kind.  Is Christianity a common-man’s dream religion?  A meat-and-potatoes Message?  A blue-collar Gospel?  No, of course it isn’t.  If it was exclusive to the ordinary man and didn’t touch the hearts of the rich-and-powerful, too, all it would amount to be would be a more current Saturnalia.  (An event to highlight the exclusion just as Saturnalia did.  A religious event to exacerbate an already huge human dilemma.)  No, God came to SAVE the WHOLE world—every person—no matter what their challenge, distraction, or hang-up may be.  Jesus came for poor AND rich, powerless AND powerful, small AND grea.

And what is truly and exceedingly most amazing, is that THE MOST REDEEMING PARTS OF SATURNALIA—the roles being reversed and the poor and enslaved enjoying the positions of power…even while only for a fleeting moment.  WHAT ONLY LASTED FOR A WEEK OF TEASING JOY FOR THE ORDINARY MAN exists as THE CHIEF PART OF THE CHRISTMAS STORY.

You see, the Gospel Message says that God—the Universe’s Most Powerful and Fully Satisfied Being—came down to earth and took on the flesh that you and I wear … reversing  the order of things.  HE DID THIS AS A PERMANENT STATE OF AFFAIRS.  And He didn’t just do it as a pity-party for the lowly.  He did it because of love.  He did it because He wanted to call us friend.

What a lame god Saturn is compared to this God.  Jesus doesn’t eat HIS babies!  He becomes one…

…with the express purpose of being born into the world He made so He could sacrifice Himself to REVERSE THE DIRECTION IN WHICH THE WORLD WAS HEADED.  Jesus came so that the Ordinary could experience and feel and realize and be transformed eternally by THE EXTRA-ORDINARY.

This, my friends is why we can join the angels and the shepherds in singing and shouting, “[This is] good news that will bring great joy to all people. …Glory to God in highest heaven, peace on earth…[and we have all the reason we need to express good will towards men].”

Christmas can last a few days for you this year…come-and-go over the course of a week or so.  Then, reality will set in on January 2nd.  But, the Christmas of Jesus is not your ordinary holiday.  It actually changes the Ordinary…if you believe.


[1] 217 BCE

[2] Vesta, Ceres, Juno, Pluto, Neptune, and Jupiter.

[3] nlt–Luke 2:1-20

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