Thursday, December 22, 2011

December 25th: A Date With Eternity

We sometimes hear that December 25th is not originally a Christian holiday. According to this argument, the Emperor Aurelian instituted a pagan holiday celebrating the birth of Sol Invictus, “the Invincible Sun,” in A.D. 274.

In this view, the Christians appropriated this date in an effort to uproot and supplant pagan beliefs with their own. The December 25th date, we are told, is actually nothing more than Christian propaganda, one more example of just how oppressive the Church can be to groups who disagree with them.

A bit more investigation, though, shows this argument to be only skin deep. Most scholars now agree that Christians chose December 25th as Christ’s birthday long before Emperor Aurelian instituted his pagan feast.

According to an ancient Jewish belief (which Christians inherited), a prophet died on the same day as he was conceived. Early Christians, who held that Christ was crucified on March 25th, therefore assumed he was conceived on the same day, when the angel Gabriel announced his birth to the Virgin Mary.

Indeed, both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches still celebrate the Annunciation—Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit—on March 25th. By ancient logic, then, Jesus would have been born nine months after March 25th, on—you guessed it—December 25th.

But the quarrel over actual dates misses a bigger point. By associating Jesus’ conception and birth with his death, the ancient Christians affirmed something crucial about the good news of Christianity. We find this fundamental truth articulated in one of the Orthodox Christmas hymns:

Today the Virgin comes to the cave
Where she will give birth to the Eternal Word.
Hear the glad tidings and rejoice, O universe!
With the angels and shepherds glorify Him who reveals Himself:
The eternal God, a little child!

The Nativity of Christ is the beginning of God’s great work among His people, a work completed with His death on the Cross and resurrection on the third day. Taken together, the conception, birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ constitute the very heart of the joyous Christian proclamation: that in Jesus Christ, the eternal God—transcendent, unapproachable and all-powerful—has come to unite Himself to us and so unite us to Himself, freeing us from death and sin, and making us “partakers of divine nature,” (2 Peter 1:4) As St. Athanasius the Great declared most boldly: “God became man, so that man could become God.”

December 25th, then, is not just another example of Christian oppression. It is not just a date to remember a past event. Rather, December 25th is another opportunity bring into the present time the eternal reality of Immanuel: “God with us” from birth to death and resurrection. This Christmas, we can all rejoice in that joy once again, celebrating the moment when God Himself broke into history, in the final act of His mysterious, incomprehensible, infinite love for us.

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