Friday, December 30, 2011

Was Jesus born on December 25?

One of the questions that comes up, especially at this time of year, is whether there's much, if any, connection between December 25, and the actual birthday of our Lord.

And one will very often see or hear someone say something like, "of course Jesus wasn't born on December 25," as if this has been settled.

Not so.

Yes, scholars have questioned whether December 25 is the correct day. Yes, we don't know for absolute certainty that December 25 is the right day; and the Church has never thought it appropriate to make such a statement. And she is wise not to, until such time as it really is proven clearly--because our Faith is that he was born, not just what day it happened.

But, all that is not the same as saying December 25 has nothing going for it. Moreover, admitting room for doubt doesn't validate all the arguments made against December 25--many of which are made in pursuit of an agenda by those who wish to sow doubt.

True, it's not a critical question, there is the problem that, for many people, doubt about the validity of something like this tends to spread, and sow doubt more broadly about what we believe, and the basis for what we believe.

So I think it's worth exploring--not because I aim to settle the matter; but because I think folks who adhere to Christian tradition, and give it credibility, need not be defensive or embarrassed about doing so. Even if the things we believe as a matter of tradition can't always be proven definitively, the more we look at them, the more reason we have to feel confident about their validity. I think you'll see that's the case here.

OK, let's get down to it: what are some reasons to accept the validity of December 25?

For me, the first question to ask is, where did the idea of December 25, as our Lord's birthday, come from? It surely wasn't arbitrary: some bishop didn't pull numbers out of hat.

One claim frequently made is that it was chosen to counteract a pagan celebration; either Saturnalia, which was celebrated in mid-December, or else to counteract a pagan festival called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or, the Feast of the Birth of the Unconquerable Sun.

We meet this argument throughout the year: the Feast of the Presentation on February 2 is really about a pagan day then; Easter, May Day, Hallowe'en, etc., are all about "baptizing" pre-existing pagan celebrations.

Well, it's one thing to say that Christians looked for ways to make connections, and build bridges between the experiences and beliefs of the pagans they were evangelizing, and another to say Christians simply took paganism and gave it a fresh coat of paint, so to speak. The fact is, as Christians encountered many cultures and customs through the early centuries, there was no avoiding some coincidence between the events celebrated in our Lord's life, and local observances. So noticing coincidences is no more meaningful than discovering who else was born the same day as you.

On the other hand, that's not to say that pagan customs had no influence. They certainly did; it's hard to imagine it being otherwise. So, for example, the Roman feast of Saturnalia fell on December 17, and at some point was expanded for several days, until December 23; and it involved candles and gift giving. So if pagan Romans, upon becoming Christians, continued giving gifts, what's wrong with that? But again, that doesn't prove that's why the Lord's birth was celebrated in December; because again, there were lots of other celebrations all year long they could have linked it to--if that was the motive. There's almost nothing to show that the date was picked for that reason.

The coincidence of the Sol Invicti celebration is more notable--it's the same day, and it has some surface similarities--references to light and the sun.

Well, it could be; however, that's a thin connection. Moreover, there is the fact that Sol Invicti wasn't a longstanding Roman celebration; it was relatively unknown until the 200s, when the Emperor Elagabalus (AD 218-222) instituted it But his worship of the sun god was something imported from Syria--it wasn't popular, and when he assassinated, his new feast was abolished(1)

Fast-forward to AD 274, when the Emperor Aurelian instituted the feast day; and this time, the practice took hold. But by 274, Christians had already been celebrating December 25 as the Lord's birthday for some time, although not universally. The feast of the Lord's nativity, like so many other feasts of our faith, was not imposed from above, as it were--by the pope or the bishops--but from "below"--it started as a local observance and spread(2).

We have a few written references to Christians celebrating the Lord's birth on December 25; one by St. Hippolytus, around AD 204; then we have other writings, from North Africa and Judea, that while not directly mentioning December 25, nonetheless support the date. Now this will take a bit of explaining, so stick with me here.

There was a Jewish concept at that time of "integral age"--i.e., the belief that great men or prophets would be conceived the same day they died. And it is in that context that some early Christians would tend to emphasize that our Lord died on March 25--implying they also believe he was conceived that day.(3)

In any case, all this does is show at least some basis for December 25 being chosen, other than reacting to a pagan celebration. Indeed, it could easily be the opposite: the pagan celebration was played up, in response to the growing Christian movement--which we do know was strongly disapproved of by various emperors, who--after all--repeatedly tried to suppress it.

OK, there's one argument. Not overwhelming. But there are other points to consider.

Remember, the Lord's birth didn't involve just one event on one day; it involved several events on several days, including events involving other people. Remember, the Scriptures tell us about Jesus' birth, in relation to that of John the Baptist; and then the Scriptures tell us about Jesus being circumcised 8 days after his birth; and then presented in the temple 40 days after.

The connection to John the Baptist is interesting, because it raises the question of when Zachariah, his father, as a priest of the temple, may have had his time of service before the Lord. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Zachariah "was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God" (1:8) -- there was a rotation of 24 groups who each took two weeks a year; according to this article by Darrell Pursiful, there were three weeks a year when everyone showed up--and that sounds plausible enough. In any case, this rotation would mean Zachariah would have had two weeks, approximately six months apart.

As Dr. Pursiful explains in the article linked above--and I've seen this argument elsewhere, but I can't put my hands on a reference just now--there would be several weeks when Zachariah might have been on duty; and one of them would, indeed, line up with John being conceived in September, and then born in June--six months before our Lord.

Not definitive, but supportive, is the best one can say.

Before I close this out, let me offer a different argument: from memory.

You and I are a long way from these events; we don't experience them as a personal or communal memory. But in the early Church, that's just how the events of our Lord's life would have been experienced. In the first two Christian centuries, the memory of when things happened would have been vivid; we know that the community of believers went to great effort to sustain those memories. The letters of the apostles were not only carefully preserved, they were quickly copied and circulated widely. The Gospels were written not long after the events they describe; and they, too, were both treasured and copied. And these writings didn't happen in a void; they interacted with the faith and memory of the people--both those who experienced these events first-hand, in Galilee and Judea, and then those who heard these things from them, and then, in turn, passed them along.

There is no speculation here; we know that the memory and passing on of these things was tremendously important to early Christians. Outside of the New Testament, we have a lot of textual evidence of all that people did to hold onto the memories of what Mary, Joseph, and the Apostles did, in addition, of course, to what our Lord said and did.

And there would be a lot of memory to preserve, surrounding the key events of our Lord's life: the events with Zachariah and Elizabeth, the annunciation to Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, the Lord's birth, circumcision, presentation in the temple, the flight to Egypt, the visit again to the temple when he was 12, and of course the events when he was an adult and began his public ministry, leading to his suffering, death and resurrection.

So what became of these memories, so devotedly cultivated and passed down? I submit they are with us still, in the liturgical cycle we observe. We don't just observe Christmas in isolation: it lines up with dates for the Annunciation (March 25), John's birthday (June 24), the Circumcision (January 1) and the Presentation (February 2). And, as noted, at one time the date of the crucifixion was aligned with the date of presumed conception; and notice, every few years, it still happens that Good Friday falls on March 25.

There are those who suppose that the early Christians, whether in choosing dates for observances, or else in tracking down relics such as the True Cross, were relatively easily satisfied; so, for example, I've heard people argue that when St. Helena got to the Holy Land and found a cross, she was fairly credulous about it. But that makes no sense to me. St. Helena's journey would have been a very difficult undertaking; why, with so much sacrifice and effort, not to mention cost, would she then accept whatever someone offered her as the True Cross? It makes far more sense to me that such a formidable woman would have--after all she invested in this effort--not be easily satisfied. Do you really suppose she never met a sharpie or a con man in her life until she showed up in Jerusalem?

Until some evidence comes forward, we can't establish the matter for certain, but my feeling is that the burden of proof doesn't lie with those who celebrate December 25 as the Lord's birthday, but with those who dispute it. Just because we don't have much information now about why that date was chosen, doesn't mean they didn't have it, then; so much of what they knew, even what was once written down and widely known, is simply lost to us now. Some presumption is fair to give to those who first established this feast day, on December 25, that they had good reasons for doing so. Since the evidence we do have is supportive, even if not conclusive, I don't know why that isn't good enough?

(1), (2) Carl J. Sommer, "The Festival of Lights: Hannukkah, Christmas and the early Church," in the December 2011 edition of Homiletic and Pastoral Review,.

(3) Ibid; referring to William Tighe, "Calculating Christmas," p.1.

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