Christmas: Putting Christ First

Pastor Richard Conner at Patuxent Baptist Church loves the Christmas season and all the trimmings that come with it; the food and feasting, the family gathering, the tree decorating and the presents.

He even has a plastic Santa Claus that sits in his front yard that waggish church members often kidnap and take on hilarious trips catalogued in photographs before being anonymously returned to him.

But all this is insignificant compared to the real reason Christmas exists; to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago.

"Christmas is important because it's a time when the world can take a moment and reflect on God's goodness to mankind," Conner said. "By sending his son to become a man for the purpose of dying on the cross for our sins."

For many, Christmas is a time of joy, Conner said, but that joy came at a high price; though Christ lived on the earth for just over 30 years his suffering and death on the cross paved the way for man's ability to ascend to heaven.

"I don't mind the extra, fun, traditions that are associated with Christmas," Conner told The County Times. "But they've become the priority now instead of the accessories."

Conner said in his 28 years of being a pastor of an independent fundamental Baptist church, fewer people are focusing on Christ during Christmas; also fewer people even know who he is.

Conner said that was because it was much easier for people to focus on the physical rather than the spiritual.

"The real answer is that man is depraved and he wants to concentrate on the flesh rather than the spirit," Conner said. "Man is not given to giving to others."

For 28 years Conner has preached the same message at Christmas time, that Christ was born and came to earth to die for our sins as the only sacrifice acceptable to God; this would allow man to have everlasting life if he accepted that gift, Conner said.

That same, simple message is needed now more than ever, Conner said.

"In general people know less about God and the Bible," he said. "It used to be that people had at least heard the story of Jesus Christ's birth.

"Now I have to go back and explain the story… people don't know the Christmas story."

Conner remembered in his younger days when he could at least watch cartoons on television and see the Christmas story.

"We used to get it on Charlie Brown," he said. "We don't even get that anymore."

When it comes to church attendance, in the past people who used to go to church just a few times a year would at least come on Christmas, Conner said, but there's much less of that now.

"It's not part of people's thinking to go to church on Christmas anymore," Conner said. "It used to be but that's not so anymore."

Richard Young is an assistant pastor at Patuxent Baptist Church and is in charge of ministries for children.

It's becoming harder each year to find new children in the church who know the Christmas story, he said.

"They know the Grinch, the know Frosty, they know Santa and they know Rudolph but they don't know the Jesus of Christmas," Young said. "It's not shiny, they love shiny."

But there is hope, Young said, and it comes off the big blue bus that the church sends out each Sunday to pick up children from neighborhoods to come to church.

"A lot of the new kids coming in are coming in on the bus," Young said. "That bus is bringing a lot of hope.

"Santa's sleigh doesn't."

The reason the Christmas story was losing popularity, Young said, was that it couldn't be embellished like other secular yuletide stories.

"You can embellish Santa but Jesus stays the same because he's the true pillar of Christmas," Young said. "The Christmas story does not change."

Conner believes it's no accident that January is noted as the time when people feel most depressed; it's after the Christmas season.

"It left them empty because they're not celebrating what it's about," Conner said.

Even with all the feasting and merrymaking during the holiday season, Conner said, it was difficult to fully understand it without knowing Christ made a way for man to avoid hell.

"You can enjoy those things more if you understand that first," Conner said.

Still there are ways to br ing Christ back into Christmas, Conner said.

Just putting out a Nativity Scene, showing Christ being born in a manger, was a way to generate curiosity about Christmas, he said, among children.

This also meant that parents had to be familiar with the Christmas story to explain it.

"You can talk to kids about what that is," Conner said.

On Christmas Day, before opening presents, read Luke, chapter nine, verses one-through-19, Conner said, to remember the Christmas story.

"It's only a few verses," Conner said. "And to learn why Christ came you can read Luke, chapter 19, verse 10."

All this can be done in minutes, Conner said.

Members at Patuxent Baptist Church are known for going caroling on Christmas; Conner said they focus on singing old Christmas hymns and not more popular tunes.

"If you look at those words you can only see why Christ came," Conner said. "It's fun, too and if people did it they would never forget."

Even the Christmas tree, with all of its decorations and gifts underneath, has a place in the Christmas story; as an evergreen, it represents eternal life and the star placed on top of it represents Jesus being the light of the world.

The gifts under the tree are a picture of God's gift to us.

"The thing about Christmas is that it's not our day," Conner said. "It's Jesus' birthday we're celebrating.

"Those gifts under the tree represent God's gift to us. It has to be received."

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