Christmas—who, what, where, when and why?
by Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief –
The Jerusalem Post might have covered the story as follows:
- BETHLEHEM––The brilliant star hovering over this “city of David” for the past few days seems to be ushering in the winter solstice with greater drama than ever before.
- Seen clearly from Jerusalem, it has prompted both natural and spiritual comments from members of the National Astrological Observatory. Dr. Seth Thomas, Observatory director, said he believed the light was caused either by a confluence of Saturn and Jupiter or some kind of strange comet. He was contradicted by an unidentified co-worker who said: “I have found nothing in the literature to support this conjecture. I believe it is a miraculous revelation from God himself.”
- A large group of neighboring shepherds added their presence to this already over-crowded town as they traipsed into the animal storage area behind David’s Inn and added their testimony to this mystery. Found kneeling in front of the stable, their leader, Saul Abraham Shepherd, claimed that they had been “dropped in on” by “heavenly beings” with angelic voices who told them that a “king” was born and directed them to go to the city to see for themselves. “That light scared us out of our wits, and that booming voice saying ‘fear not’ didn’t help much,” he said. “The singing calmed us down, and really excited the young bunch––so here we are,” he said, simply.
I wonder what that story would be like today. In this age of rationality and among an adult population whose values seem much inspired by Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday, we seem heavily focused on “just the facts, M’am.”
On absolutely everything people seem to believe they need “evidence” in order to justify belief. Take Christmas, for instance––a wonderful holiday on December 25th in which much of the world commemorates the birth of Messiah––the Christ. What’s the evidence for this date?
The first date assigned for the celebration was May 20. This stood until Augustus discovered his monks had computed the date using the ninth month of their own calendar rather than the Hebrew calendar. Since then, there has been “no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)
In history and even now among the orthodox eastern churches, the birth of Christ is celebrated in conjunction with the feast of Epiphany, January 6th.
Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles with the arrival of the two, three or four (number not factually determined) wise men from the east. (The west has now settled on three.) The timing of this arrival has been debated as much as the timing of the nativity. It seems clear that it occurred after Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to “do for him what the custom of the law required.” (Luke 2: 27)
Among the citizenry of Rome, there had been for many years a large celebration of “the birthday of the sun” as that calendar’s December 25th celebrated the winter solstice. Around the middle of the fourth century the church identified this date for the celebration of the nativity. Concurrently, there appeared strong papal emphasis over the next thousand years that this decision did not reflect any identification by Christianity with Sol, the god worshipped by solar cults.
So, you see, if diverse members of a multicultural society want to adopt the Christmas season to celebrate their own holiday events, let’s remember that we Christians had help from sun worshippers in setting this date for our celebration.
The strong metaphor of Christ as the “light of the world” brings daily reminders as the days grow longer (at least in our hemisphere) with the arrival of the winter solstice.
So, that’s the “who”, the “where” and some of the “when” of it with as many of the “facts, M’am” as is possible to assemble. The “what” and the “why” must be assigned by each of us according to whatever belief system we assemble. We choose our beliefs. The act becomes rational because we use our minds.
It’s interesting to me that the word “epiphany” has an additional meaning. It’s a burst of insight into the essential meaning of something. We assemble that meaning as we link together personal interpretations of evidence, thoughts, ideas and feelings from multiple sources often rearranged in ways different from the usual.
So, while beliefs are housed in the mind, they are organized by the choices we make as we perceive our individual reality. Those choices are housed in the soul. Faith need not be based on evidence surrounding dates, times and places. It must live firmly in the person of Christ in us.
Merry Christmas everyone from this little corner of the world.