Voices of Faith offers perspectives from religion columnists. This week’s question: What are we to think of the fact that the month of Jesus’ birth was decided two centuries afterward?
Faith trumps timing
Father Joe Nassal, priest at Precious Blood Center in Liberty, Mo.: The fact that it took two centuries to decide which month to celebrate Jesus’ birth reflects that the first followers of Christ seemed more interested in his suffering, death and resurrection than in his origins.
After all, the earliest gospel, Mark, does not mention Jesus’ birth.
The exact date of Jesus’ arrival has been the subject of scholarly debate for centuries. Even Pope Benedict XVI entered the conversation last year when he published “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives,” which suggested that Jesus was born earlier than originally thought.
The familiar stories we hear this time of year from the gospels of Matthew and Luke offer different versions of the Christmas story, but neither one offers a precise date of birth or even the time of year Jesus was born. But as Pope Benedict writes, “The aim of the evangelists was not to produce an exhaustive account but a record of what seemed important for the nascent faith community in the light of the word.”
The old saying “Timing is everything” has merit, but in the case of the precise date for Jesus’ birth, timing is trumped by belief. The focus of Christmas is more theological than chronological, so the importance of the season is found in the call of Christmas rather than on the calendar. And yet, celebrating the birth of Jesus in midwinter may reflect the desire of the early Christian community to christen Roman pagan festivals celebrated at the time.
But regardless of the time of year of Jesus’ birth, what matters to those who claim his name is that “God is with us.” In the Northern Hemisphere, at least, the celebration of Christmas around the time of the winter solstice encourages stringing our houses and trimming our trees with lights to capture how Christ is the light of the world.
In the deepest and steepest darkness, light beckons hope.
The Rev. Duke Tufty, Unity Temple on the Plaza, Kansas City, Mo.: After thinking a great deal about this question, I must profess that what you are about to read is pure speculation on my part. I don’t know why, I can only surmise.
In Jesus’ case, his death was much more important than his birth, for everybody is born into this world. Only Jesus, according to scripture, rose from the dead. That being the case, evidence for his divinity rested on the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.
Several hundred years later, the church was struggling. Just as churches do today, it put a marketing plan in effect to bring in more people. Their target market: the pagans. For centuries the pagans had celebrated on Dec. 25 because that was the day they noticed the sun had stopped its retreat and was beginning to come back to them. The winter solstice gave reason for praise and celebration, so the church decided to put Jesus’ birth on that date, have a double celebration and invite their pagan prospects to attend. Praise to the sun, praise to the Son, a good time was had by all.
This is confirmed by a simple note written in the manuscript of Dionysius, a Syriac biblical commentator. Discovered in the 12th century, it stated that the Christmas holiday was changed from Jan. 6 to Dec. 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.
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