As we approach the Christmas season, I can’t help but think of the oddity, especially of the western world, in the way people celebrate Christmas more than Christ’s resurrection. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Christmas season. Santa Claus, Christmas movies, the trees, the lights, the smells, the sounds, the food, everything. But what does the Resurrection get? A bunny? Some egg picking? Pastel colors? Seriously?
If you don’t believe me when I say things are flip-flopped, look at what I read on Al-Ahram Weekly’s website about how people in the middle east celebrate Christmas, as exemplified by Egyptian Christians:
“The Coptic Christmas, might not be the main festival on the Christian calendar, but it is a very special occasion marking the birth of Jesus Christ. That particular honour is bestowed on Easter, with its celebration of the resurrection of Christ, which is called by Egyptian Christians the Al-Eid Al-Kebir (the Big Feast). Christmas, on the other hand, is popularly known as Al-Eid Al-Sughayar (the Little Feast).” (Link to article)
I remember my grandmother referring to Christmas and the Resurrection in just that way once. “Eid Al-Sughayar” The little feast? I thought to myself, “She must have picked that up from somewhere but that can’t really be the way people in Egypt refer to this feast.” But it is. [See this brief sermon on video by H.G. Bishop Raphael about this matter.]
And it’s not just Egypt. The Feast of the Resurrection has always been given greater prominence since the beginning of Christendom. Go and find me how many special meetings were convened to discuss the manner and time of celebrating either feast, and you’ll find an overwhelming number of early Christian bishops scrambling together to ensure the Feast of the Resurrection was celebrated properly. Is Christmas celebrated weekly? No, but rather the Resurrection is, every single Sunday (that is why we gather on Sundays for worship services, if you didn’t’ already know that).
A BOY WHO DOUBTED GOD REALLY EXISTS
While all of this may seem like a minor issue, it all came to have a real significance recently when a young Coptic boy, a chanter, well known to all at our church, whose parents are blessed fixtures in the services of the church, surprised me when he honestly told me (and I paraphrase):
“I don’t know if I really believe God exists. I mean, I’ve just been believing what you and the servants and the priests have told me. But I am not sure for myself.”
My mouth dropped to the floor, I picked it up, and then scrambled to find an answer, sending an arrow prayer to God for help.
The answer comes down to the greatest proof of all: Christ’s resurrection. Without it, Christ was either a liar or a lunatic. Every event in Christ’s life, Christmas included, are all of little worth were it not for His resurrection. The remark by many non-Christians that Christ was a good man, but just wasn’t God, is preposterous. A good man would not go around lying about His divinity. He is either Lord, liar, or lunatic. The answer all pivots on whether Christ lied or was deluded in proclaiming that He is God and can resurrect on His own, or not. If the resurrection really happened, then we have our answer as to whether God exists.
To illustrate this, imagine me, John Habib, walking around and saying the following to you:
- Yes, I was born in a barn, but I tell you, I actually wasn’t. I’ve existed forever.
- I haven’t really done anything that notable for thirty years, but you should leave your job and follow my words carefully, and follow me around.
- Thanks for following me. Now let me reveal more. Remember that story about manna that fell from heaven? That’s me. You have to feed on me (that’s the actual phrase from the Bible, by the way, that Christ used: “he who feeds on Me will live because of Me” [John 6:57]).
- Don’t believe me? Watch as I heal this person, make that person’s eyes appear when he didn’t have any, make this food multiply, tell you what you are thinking before you speak a word.
- Oh, and watch as I raise that guy who has been dead for four days. If you walk around with me, and believe that I am who I say that I am, and eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will become immortal, like me. Because I am not only able to give life, I am Life itself. I am the source of life. The only source.
- And if it isn’t clear already, I am God.
- I see you are all looking at me funny, but I’ll prove it to you. I’m going to get arrested, be killed like a criminal, but I’ll be back! Just give me 3 days.
The only way anyone would accept any of the above is if I actually resurrected like I said.
HOW DO I KNOW FOR MYSELF THAT WHAT THE DISCIPLES PREACHED IS TRUE?
Okay, we know what we have been told: Christ resurrected. But how do I know for myself it is true? Yes, the disciples and apostles said it, and we have the writings they left us, and all the people after them have been saying it. But how do I know they aren’t all mistaken? That was the question the boy asked.
The answer, for me, and what seemed to convince this boy (thank God), came down to a concept I picked up in an amazing book published by Thomas Nelson, “Evidence for Christianity,” written by Josh McDowell. I had never really thought about it in this way before, but it gave me a newfound trust in those who first declared Christ as God.
In summary: People will not die for a lie that they know to be so.
Think about it. Each of the disciples (except John), and nearly every single apostle, died a martyr’s death.
“They were persecuted because they tenaciously clung to their beliefs and statements. As Paul Little writes: ‘Men will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie.’ … If the disciples had [for example] stolen Jesus’ body, they would have known that their resurrection proclamation was false. However, they ‘constantly referred to the Resurrection as the basis for their teaching, preaching, living, and significantly—dying.'” (From “Evidence of Christianity”)
THE DISCIPLES FEARED IT WAS A LIE UNTIL THEY VERIFIED FOR THEMSELVES THE TRUTH
Why can we trust the first witnesses? Because they verified for themselves the truth of Christ’s claims after they overcame an overwhelming weight of personal doubts; and only then were they willing to die for the truth they discovered.
Let’s examine the extent to which the disciples believed Christ’s words about Himself as their journey with Him progressed.
Throughout their time with Jesus they were trying to figure Him out. Remember that Christ had more followers than just the Twelve, but eventually most left, especially when He started saying that people have to feed on Him and eat His body and blood to live forever (“From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to go away?'” [John 6:66–67]). For those that remained by His side, all their belief that was built up over time, as they heard all His words, saw His life, witnessed the miracles, eventually led to them finally becoming convinced of all that Christ was saying, as St. Peter declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
But once He was arrested, they all forsook Him. “Okay, He said He was God, and I believed, but what if He isn’t after all? How can God be so weak that He is arrested and subdued by His own creation?” That’s what I imagine they were thinking, in line with the same logic applied by the priests and robbers around Christ as He was crucified (“Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, ‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, “I am the Son of God.”’ Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing” [Matthew 27:41-44]). The Bible tells us the reaction of the disciples right after He was captured: “Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled” (Matthew 26:56; also Mark 14:50). And the same person who just recently declared belief in Christ as Son of God vehemently denied Him with a curse when pressed to answer: “Then he began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know this Man of whom you speak!'” (Mark 14:71).
If they knew Christ was Lord, the disciples would not have feared death, because we know that after they had their fears set aside and their belief in Christ restored, they joyfully accepted suffering and death, “rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name [of Christ]” (Acts 5:41), so that they willingly felt “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
But before we get those faithful disciples, we have the ones who are afraid after His death. After Christ died, we find them all locked up in a room afraid of being persecuted: “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders” (John 20:19).
How did the disciples suddenly change? Why can we trust their witness? Because these disciples proved to us to be normal in their logic, and normal in their response. They saw the person they thought was God get arrested and die. And like any normal person, when they got the news that He resurrected, it was not sufficient for them to just believe the news told them by Mary Magdalene. Peter and John ran to the tomb to verify it for themselves! They “both ran together, and the other disciple [John] outran Peter and came to the tomb first” (John 20:4). And after seeing the empty tomb, against all odds, they “saw and believed” (John 20:8).
But this was not all that happened. Do you think when Peter and John went to the other disciples and told them the news, that everyone freely believed without any doubt? It took more, and more they received. As they were locked shut in the room, Christ Himself appears. “Jesus came and stood among them” (John 20:19). And as if appearing was not enough, He made them touch His side.
So then, after all these disciples believe, you would also think that Thomas would believe them too? Thomas wasn’t there, as you know. He, like the rest of the disciples, needed to be sure before they went out and proclaimed what they were afraid was a lie. Like the rest of the disciples, like many of us, like this boy who I was speaking with, everyone was skeptical. Why should I believe just because they told me so? Thomas vehemently said “I will never believe it!” unless I see it for myself. And we all know that is exactly what happened.
THE DISCIPLES GAIN NOTHING TO LIE BUT RATHER LOSE EVERYTHING
See, it’s very simple. These disciples were not willing to go suffer without being sure that what they were dying for was the truth. Unlike many religions out there whose founders often gained much from what they declared (be it fame, money, women, you name it), what did the disciples and apostles gain?
Nothing, even though they could have gained much. That’s what St. Paul says. As messengers and servants of God, they could have asked for food, a wife, or other material things. “Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife? … to refrain from working? … [Why should any apostle serve] at his own expense … Is it a great thing if we reap your material things?” (1 Corinthians 9:4–7, 11). But, his “defense to those who examine is this: … we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ… I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me; for it would be better for me to die than anyone should make my boasting void” (1 Corinthians 9:3, 12, 15).
Why then St. Paul? Why? Why would you suffer all these things? Because he was convinced that what he was doing was not based on a lie, but on a truth. He was persecuting Christians and had an amazing change of heart, in spite of the fact that he was joining a group that he helped make public enemy number one. Why? Because he too saw for himself and believed, when Christ appeared to Him (Acts 9).
The story is simple. Why should you believe the testimony of everyone who teaches you today? Because the first witnesses upon whom those teachings are founded would not have suffered for a lie. They were afraid to suffer until they verified for themselves the truth. Then, and only then, did they accept suffering, and proceed with their mission to present Life to others so that they may pass the Truth to you today.
In the end, the magnitude of Christ’s presence on earth would be negligible but for the following reality:
- Confucius’s tomb: occupied
- Buddha’s tomb: occupied
- Mohammed’s tomb: occupied
- Jesus’ tomb: EMPTY.
So as you celebrate Christmas, never forget the “power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10), and that the only reason we believe that Christ is Lord, not lunatic or liar, is because we have a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Knowing that we believe in the verified truth of the apostles, who “with great power … gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33), let us never lose faith. They gained nothing to witness a lie to us, but we gain everything by believing the truth. Built upon the foundation of the resurrection, every other event in Christ’s life bears its significance. Feel boldness in declaring this baby born in a manger to be God. The Greek hymn (eparthenos) we sing during the Liturgy of the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) should then have more significance to you:
“Today, the virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages.”
I highly recommend everyone to watch a great lecture given by a wonderful church servant and author, James Helmy, titled, “The Greatest Proof of All” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSYIvXRCc30)
Now that you have read this blog post, I also recommend you read 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul’s famous chapter on the Resurrection. It should have newfound meaning to you.