Thursday, January 7, 2016

Jesus' Birthday?

For last week's newspapers, I answered a question about the date of Jesus' birth and its significance for salvation:  

Q:  How did the Church figure out if Jesus was born on December 25?  Do we celebrate Christmas because Jesus saved us by being born? 

Many people do not realize that the date of Christmas on December 25 was never intended to be understood as a claim to be the literally precise date of Jesus’ birth.  A handful of ancient Church Fathers believed and defended the possibility that it might be His actual birth date, but the date of December 25 is more significant for its role in illustrating through the rhythm of the Church’s year the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

This begins with the common acknowledgment that the day on which Jesus was crucified was March 25.  Because it was not customary for the Jewish people to record birth dates at the time of Jesus, it was a popular belief that the date of a person’s death coincided with the date of their conception.  By this reasoning, Jesus’ conception began to be celebrated on March 25 of the Roman calendar while His death and resurrection were celebrated on the Friday and Sunday of Passover week by the Jewish calendar. 

Out of this eventually developed the complete Church Year which celebrates the date 9 months after March 25 (which is December 25) as the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, and through its various seasons remembers the events of Jesus’ life during the first half of the calendar and His teachings during the second half of that calendar. 

In addition, one can also look to the record that John the Baptizer was conceived on Yom Kippur, the day his father served in the Temple for the Jewish Day of Atonement, which occurs in the last week of September.  Luke then records that Mary conceived Jesus when Elizabeth was six months along in her pregnancy with John, which would be the last week of March, resulting in Jesus birth nine months later, in the final week of December. 

But, the significance of Christmas does not come because Jesus birth is the act by which He saves.  The perfect life He lived after that birth, and His death and suffering of God’s wrath on the cross in place of sinners are necessary in order for salvation to be accomplished.  His birth alone would be majestic and worthy of note, but it would not by itself be able to deliver forgiveness of sins to humanity or reconcile us to God. 

Instead, we celebrate the birth of Christ because it is the concrete event where God’s salvation first becomes visible to His creation in the person of Jesus.  In the early Church, the Annunciation (the angel’s announcement which caused Jesus’ conception in the Virgin Mary) was actually revered of more highly than Christmas, because they recognized that the significant event was already full and complete as Jesus was already fully God and fully human from the moment of His conception—a truth Christians refer to as the Incarnation. 

However, we celebrate Christmas because of the same significant truth, which is that God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus.  God the Son voluntarily allowed Himself to be conceived, born, grow, and mature in the normal course of human life.  He became fully human so that by taking on our flesh He could stand in our place both in life and in death. 

He accomplished that in the events of Good Friday and Resurrection Day, but we recognize and celebrate that He began the earthly life which leads to that on the day of His birth—whether that literally happened on December 25 or not. 

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