It’s that time of year again. Christmas adverts are being over-analysed, and our diaries are out, as we plan what we’ll do for Christmas. Who will we see? What and who are our priorities going to be this year? In my lifetime, I’ve swung between three different positions when it comes to Christmas:
- the hard-line puritan position: “let’s cancel Christmas”! Famously, during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, it became illegal to celebrate Christmas. In my student days, I was quite taken by that idea. (But I note that at no point did I reject any Christmas presents from my family!). This position definitely surprises the average non-Christian and can lead to some interesting discussions about Jesus, and what honouring him really means. There’s lots about the way Christmas works that can make you sceptical; sometimes exercising our Christian liberty to free ourselves from unhelpful traditions can do the soul good.
- a more moderate, “Christmas is an excellent occasion to deliberately think about the incarnation” position. This was how Christmas worked in Geneva, during John Calvin’s ministry; while the Genevan church dismantled the liturgical calendar, Calvin still marked Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost in his preaching. Sadly, most evangelicals don’t really know why the incarnation of Christ matters. “Isn’t it just a stepping stone to the cross?!”. As churches, we’ve got to get our act together when it comes to teaching the person of Christ. Making a point of deliberately preaching on the incarnation each year is an obvious way to do that. Not one of us is going to be harmed by reading a good book about Jesus in December.
- a more secular/sacred position: “let’s just enjoy Christmas as something secular, and not feel the need to dress it up as Christian and bind people’s consciences”. This ticks the puritan box, while still allowing you to let your hair down and have some fun.
Whichever one of those positions I’ve taken, the reality is I’ve often felt self-indulgent, lazy and somewhat disappointed at how Christmas has worked out in practice.
In that context, this verse from Ecclesiastes 11:17 has really struck me:
“…feast at the proper time, for strength and not for drunkenness!”
This verse shows us that there are different ways of feasting. Not all festivities are the same. There is a kind of feasting that is “for strength”. You’re stronger as a result. It contrasts a feasting that is “for drunkenness”, which is about excess and overindulgence. I can feel quite conflicted about feasting; I know it’s good in principle, but in practice it so easily turns into a form of self-indulgence, which needs to be followed up by fasting. But this verse says there’s a way of feasting that makes you stronger. After this kind of feasting, you’re fitter to fight; you’ve built stronger bonds of love; you’ve enlarged your heart. I’d say as a culture, and as churches, we’re not very good at this kind of feasting. We need more practice. Like Nehemiah said: “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh 8:10).
The verse also raises the question of the “proper time” for feasting. In context, it’s not talking about the time of year, but the time of day (v.16 “your princes feast in the morning”). But the word echoes chapter 3 and the wisdom required to discern the right time for things (“there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh”). So, when should we feast?
Of course, Jesus hasn’t imposed particular dates on his church, like the Old Testament calendar (e.g. Leviticus 23). The 25th of December isn’t a holy day. Christ has given us the weekly rhythm of the Lord’s Day (Heb 4:9; Rev 1:10). This day situates us between Christ’s resurrection and our future resurrection. But Christ’s resurrection hasn’t banished seasons (Gen 1:14; 8:22). God has placed us on a globe with monthly and annual rhythms too. It seems to me that just ignoring them and pretending every week of the year is identical isn’t very “wise”.
Whether you like it or not, you’re going to get three bank holidays at Christmas and New Year, and your ordinary “rhythm” is going to get disrupted. So, what are you going to do? It’s the darkest time of year, when everyone expects a feast, and the time when culturally we’re set up for it, so, if you’re not going to feast now, when will you?! So, what I’d encourage you to do is rather than have a case of sour grapes at Christmas, or be a spiritual couch-potato, or a frazzled mum, resolve to “feast… for strength”.
- Practically, feasting is communal. So, pay attention to what your church is doing. We easily get sensitive, and opt to do our own thing. But feasting “for strength” isn’t going to be everybody just doing their own thing. Christmas is often seen as “family” time, but that raises the question: “who is my family?”. Just pulling up the drawer-bridge, and hanging out with your close family isn’t likely to strengthen you. Good feasting includes opening up to others, especially Christian brothers and sisters, and those in need.
- Pray! Pray for God to guide you to feast for strength and not for drunkenness. I don’t think it’s really obvious how to do that, so we need the Holy Spirit’s help to guide us. Why not be praying: “Lord, help me in this month to feast well, to enjoy your good gifts with others!”? Pray for God to deliver you from selfishness in feasting, and to cultivate love and generosity.
- Avoid superstition, and man-made religious traditions. Don’t feel pressured into all kinds of spending, and behaviours that others force upon you. Your job isn’t to feast in a way that you’re in debt for January, or you have to go on diet. But in response to God’s grace to you in Christ, celebrate and bring good cheer to you, your family, your church, and your neighbourhood.
Christmas is a time that can stir up all kinds of feelings in us; sometimes they’re pretty ugly; sometimes they’re very painful. But, in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, God gives us wisdom to feast in ways that make us stronger not weaker, less closed and more open to others.
“Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor 9:15).