The date of Christmas

So Christmas is getting close enough that once again, I am repeating myself about a particular bugbear of mine; the common belief that the date of Christmas is the 25th of December in order to coincide with a major Pagan festival and entice Pagans into the church.

Because he says it much better than I can, and I completely agree with him, I’m going to copy below an old blog post (original here) on the topic from Andrew McGowan, Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale (and a lecturer of mine, when he was still in Australia).  Short version: the early church didn’t think about things the way we do, or the way we expect them to have.  Christmas is where it is for reasons other than converting Pagans.  So there.

From McGowan:

“The lack of specific information about the timing of Jesus’ birth has not kept the enthusiastic and the ingenious from speculating about the exact date of the first Christmas. The silence of the Gospels on this does reveal one thing fairly clearly, however: the earliest Christians were not much interested in the issue.

Christmas as such was probably not celebrated in the first couple of centuries after Jesus’ birth at all. Far more interesting to the first Christians was Easter, their version of Passover, which commemorated the last climactic events of Jesus’ ministry rather than the poignant stories of his beginning. Since Jesus’ last great conflict with the Roman authorities and their collaborators had taken place at Passover, his death was interpreted along lines suggested by the great Jewish festival, and his resurrection celebrated in conjunction with it.

The observance of Christmas as a major feast appears only rather later, in the fourth century or at the end of the third. By this time Christians were placing greater emphasis on God’s personal presence in a human being throughout Jesus’ life – the “incarnation” or enfleshment of God, as teachers such as Irenaeus of Lyons and Athanasius of Alexandria put it. Jesus’ own conception and birth thus became matters of greater concern and curiosity in popular belief and ritual as well. Christians had also come gradually to observe a greater variety of holidays, such as those commemorating the deaths of martyrs; these anniversaries of heroes who died for their faith were known as “birthdays,” the occasion of a new birth to life in God’s presence. The celebration of Jesus’ literal birthday was not such a huge leap.

Yet the appearance of a specific date for Christmas is somewhat mysterious. In fact there were originally two, December 25th and January 6th (now known as the Feast of the Epiphany), which came to be observed in the West and East of the Roman Empire respectively. Both these dates were close to the winter solstice – December 21st in our modified Gregorian calendar. Mid-winter festivals had already been common – the Romans had their Saturnalia, and other peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times.

Ancient authors had already noticed the connection, but nineteenth-century scholars, spurred on by the emergent study of comparative religion, seized upon this coincidence with something approaching fervor. Since these dates could not really be linked to the birth date of the historical Jesus, were they not just thinly-veiled pagan festivals, appropriated and Christianized only superficially? It was no secret that Christian leaders such as Pope Gregory the Great had encouraged the “baptism” of pagan religious observances for evangelistic purposes, and this connection could not have been ignored or avoided in the expansion of Christmas feast.

Such views have become dogma in many popular discussions, but the truth seems likely to be more complex. There are two key problems with to the “solstice” theory. The first is that the oldest evidence for Christmas festivals is just slightly too early to make sense as a Christianized Saturnalia, since it comes from the time when Christians were still a persecuted group distinguished by refusal to adopt obvious pagan customs, rather than by readiness to adapt. The second is that while feasts of the incarnation were indeed late in achieving recognition and widespread liturgical celebration, these actual dates – or one of them at least – had been identified much earlier. Clement ofAlexandria, who wrote around 200 CE, was already aware of the January 6th date given for Jesus’ birth.

The key to understanding the emergence of both January 6th and December 25th as dates for Jesus’ birth festival lies – strange as it may seem – in the dating of Passover and of Jesus’ death, which were known to have coincided. Christians in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire took the fourteenth day of the first Spring month (‘Artemisios’) in the local calendar – April 6th to us – as their equivalent for the date of Passover, Nisan 14th. In the West however, speculation about the date of Jesus’ death had landed on a different date, March 25th, by about the year 200.

These two Paschal dates are of course nine months before the eastern and western feasts of the incarnation, January 6th and December 25th. So some Second-century Christians had apparently calculated the birth of Jesus on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day – and come up with two close, but different, results.

Aside from the complicated calculations, the connection between Jesus’ conception and death seems odd. Yet Jewish writings of the same period reflect a similar belief that the great events had taken place on the same dates: the Talmud records the view that the world was created, the Patriarchs born, and the world would be redeemed, all in the month of Nisan. Thus the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have begun not with opportunistic borrowings of pagan observances, but from Christian theological reflection on history; Jesus would have been conceived – become incarnate – at the same time he was to die, and born nine months later.

The commonly-drawn connection with the winter solstice is not irrelevant. Clearly this coincidence made the expansion of the feast of the nativity more strategically important, and Christians were not backward in appropriating some of the symbols already known to pagans. Yet the origin of the date of Christmas is probably owed more directly to Judaism than to paganism, and the growth in the importance of the feast is more directly connected with deepening reflection by Christians of the early centuries on the significance of the event it commemorated.”

The imitation of Christ

This is the text of a sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 and Matthew 22:15-33.

A little boy was visiting his grandma. He asked thoughtfully, “Grandma, do you know how you and God are alike?”
She mentally polished her halo while she asked, “No, how are we alike?
“You’re both old.”

Well. In our epistle reading today, Paul praised the Thessalonions for having been imitators of the Lord. And it’s a neat concept, a useful one for our own reflections, this idea of imitating the Lord. But just like the little boy with his grandma, it’s an idea which is prone to getting tangled up in our misconceptions, or our pious fantasies about what the Lord is like, and what imitating the Lord might mean. It’s also – let’s face it – a very big umbrella; how do you define what it is to imitate the Lord? It’s not easily reducible to neat formulae, or a simple list of rules. It’s more complicated than that.

So I take on the topic acknowledging up front that I can only pick up one little bit this morning and reflect on that with you; and that I cannot possibly do justice to the whole topic here. It will take each of us a lifetime to unpack the full implications for us of what it means to imitate the Lord.

So let me start here. In that absolute classic 15th-century work, Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, he says – in passing, almost as a throw-away line – “Do not seek too much freedom.” It made me pause, when I came across it; because freedom is so very much a virtue of our times. Is it even possible, contemporary culture might well ask, to have too much freedom? Should we not all be as free as possible? Isn’t that a measure of our worth and dignity as human beings, that we recognize personal and political autonomy as basic human rights? So what was Thomas on about, and did he have anything valuable to say to that sort of thinking?

I came to the conclusion, in thinking about this, that there are perhaps two kinds of freedom with which we ought to be concerned. One is the freedom to be who we are; to be able to be open, honest, transparent and participate in our communities with absolute integrity. This is the kind of freedom which Jesus showed us so well; he knew who he was, and he didn’t change the way he presented it to please the scribes, the Pharisees, the crowds or even his own disciples. Of this sort of freedom, I don’t think we can have too much.

Taking up this freedom means recognizing that each of us is precisely whom God has created us to be; that we have each been given gifts for the building up of this community, and that each of us are called to make a contribution to the life of the church and the world. None of that – who we are, what gifts we have, what contribution we each make – is anything that we ever need to apologise for. It’s why, when I was asked recently by someone outside the church about how I deal with people who have a problem with women in ministry, my response was to say, well, I understand their position, but they just have to suck it up, because I’m here, and this is who I am. And I’m not going to apologise for that.

But there is another kind of freedom. The freedom to do just whatever we please. We see that taken to an extreme, perhaps, in the cliché about generation Y that they don’t RSVP to invitations or make concrete plans in case something better comes up in the interim. Not wanting to be tied down, but always open to the best offer in the moment. And so you get youth-oriented churches, for example, who send out SMS reminders of church services hours beforehand in an attempt to boost attendance.

I’m happy to say that I don’t think we need to resort to that just yet. But this sort of freedom is very different to the freedom to be who you are. Its opposite is not oppression; it is commitment. And when we think about it, it becomes obvious that a balanced human life needs some of this sort of freedom, but also can indeed have too much of it; the person who does not commit at all is likely to be a dilettante student, an unreliable employee, an unsatisfactory romantic partner, and… I wonder, what sort of Christian?

Jesus, from the moment of his baptism right through to his death by crucifixion, set us an example of unwavering commitment. And we heard it, in a way, in his teaching in today’s gospel reading as well; “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” It’s a question worth pausing and taking seriously; what do we think we rightly owe God?

Let me be clear; this isn’t me trying to guilt trip people into doing more, being here more, or otherwise trying to offer some sort of proof of personal piety. But I’m suggesting that Christian commitment ought to make a difference. It ought to impact on our priorities. It ought to open us up to the question, “What would God have me do?” or, if that’s too abstract, to consider how the mission of God, and the values we can identify as consistent messages through Scripture, relate to the choices we have to make.

Be imitators of the Lord, and one day, what you have in common with God won’t be just that you’re both old – though that might happen too – but also that you are known as people able and ready to teach and nurture others; to recognize and respond to the needs of those around you; to identify and stand against injustice. You’ll be identifiable as people whose moral imagination has been shaped by the example of Christ, and who has learned the wisdom of giving to God, what is God’s; and like the Thessalonians, your reputation as people of faith will be a credit to you.

The Lord be with you.