“Christmas & the Bible (part 2 of 3)”
Last week, we noted how the facts of history challenge what many of us take for granted about the birth of Christ. We cannot be certain about the exact date of our Lord's entrance into the world. But if that is the case, why was December 25th chosen? We’ve shown that this observance came out of 4th century Christianity. During that time, there was great controversy in the church surrounding Jesus' human and divine nature. Great councils of men convened to discuss and debate it.
A question of Jesus' human & divine nature
Eventually, in the 4th century, some began to observe a festival called "Epiphany" on January 6th. Epiphany (which means "appearing") celebrated the moment when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to rest upon Jesus at his baptism (Mt. 4). It was at that point, they believed, that Jesus “became God.” Jesus, in their thinking, was not God until the Spirit came upon him and that, right before he died on the cross, the Spirit left Jesus and he ceased to be divine (Mt. 27:46). They did not believe that God could ever truly die or be associate with the flesh, so they made this distinction by celebrating Epiphany.
But others believed (rightly) that Jesus was divine from birth. To distinguish themselves from the heretics, they decided to celebrate Jesus birth, thus declaring him to be divine from the very beginning. Essentially, it became a heretic detector. If you observed January 6th, you held the view that Jesus became God at his baptism and ceased to be God before his death. If you celebrated his birthday, you acknowledged his deity from birth. But if the Epiphany-people chose January 6th what would the orthodox believers choose as theirs? Here is where things get interesting.
Constantine and the "Christianizing" of pagan festivals
Constantine became the Emperor of Rome and “converted” to Christianity (or at least aligned himself politically with it), transforming the Roman Empire from being a persecutor of the church to an ally. He played an influential role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in AD 313 which formally legalized Christianity in the Empire. After the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the Roman Empire began to support the worship of Jesus.
No one is certain of the exact moment in history when Christmas was first celebrated. Like many traditions, it seemed to have happened organically over time. An increasingly sympathetic culture began to "Christianize" pagan festivals. The Romans used the winter solstice (when days grow longer) as a yearly marker. Darkness prevailed up to that point in the year (the gods of darkness, that is) but at the winter solstice the Sun took ascendency and the light became victorious. In the 4th century, Augustine said in a sermon, "Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase."
The Romans worshiped the Sun god, Sol Invictus (we see roots of this paganism in calling the first day of the week Sun-day). Since Jesus is the Light of the world (Jn. 8:12) and the true Sun that rises (Mal. 4:2), it wasn't that much of a stretch for Romans to use the winter solstice as the day of celebrating his birth. Bishop Liberius of Rome, on December 25th, AD 360, "consecrated one Marcella who was a sister of Ambrose, a nun or bride of Christ and addressed her with these words: ‘You see what multitudes are come to the birth festival of your bridegroom.'" (Schaff’s History of the Christian Church) The word “Christmas” has a Catholic source as a special mass in honor of the birth of Jesus (Christ-mass).
The Roman Catholic Church of the 21st century puts it like this:
Numerous theories have been put forward through the last 2,000 years to explain December 25th as Christmas Day. The most likely one however, the one most generally accepted by scholars now is that the birth of Christ was assigned to the date of the winter solstice. This date is December 21st in our calendar, but was December 25th in the Julian calendar which predated our own. The solstice, when days begin to lengthen in the northern hemisphere was referred to by pagans as ‘The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.’ During the third century, the Emperor Aurelian proclaimed December 25th as a special day dedicated to the Sun-god, whose cult was very strong in Rome at that time. Even before this time, Christian writers had already begun to refer to Jesus as the Sun of Justice. It seemed quite logical, therefore, that as Christianity began to dominate the Roman Empire, the date of the ‘new-born Sun’ should be chosen as the birthdate of Christ. Apparently, it bothers some people that the date for Christmas has its roots in a pagan feast. Be that as it may, it’s the best explanation we have for the choice of December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus.” (The Question Box, Catholic Catechism, pg. 28-29)
Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th was not something people engaged in until some 300 years after Jesus' resurrection and ascension. It came as a consequence of two forces: (1) Controversy within the church about nature of Jesus and (2) a desire to “Christianize” pagan festivals. Next week, we will answer where Jesus was born and compare the biblical narrative of Jesus' birth with the sometimes confused cultural narrative.