A season for all

December 24, 1997|By Lance A. B. Gifford

IF YOU can believe the physicists, theologians and scholars; if you believe in the star of Bethlehem and astronomical sightings, and, finally, if you believe in how the Gospel accounts sometimes adapt themselves to Old Testament prophecy, then you will not be too surprised to learn that Jesus, by the best of accounts, was born in August of the year 4 B.C.

Now we are not sure where this event took place, since Matthew and Luke (the only ones who provide birth narratives) seem to differ on this point, but the date is pretty secure.

Early research

Actually, the earliest of the searchers for the birthday of Christ was Clement of Alexandria, a great father of the church from back in the third century. He determined the date as May 20th.

It wasn't until the year 326 that the Roman church chose Dec. 25 in an effort to oppose the Roman feast of Natus Soli Invicti the birth of the sun god.

So now, we celebrate the birth of Christ on the peculiar date of Dec. 25, so curiously close to the winter solstice.

This celebration of birth and ultimate promise of resurrection takes place just after the shortest day of the year, which is in fact, the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle.

This is at the time when the sun is at its most waning moment. To primitive societies, the loss of sunlight was a scary moment. Will the sun die? Will the crops grow again? Is it all over?

Of course not.

But this is the time of the year than mankind worries about these things, so in our usual human way, we try to ward off the death we see coming all around us.

Now this is a plea for tolerance. So often Christian people rail about how Christmas has been stolen by the merchants and the card companies.

What I am saying is that in these northern latitudes, we have stolen the holiday from them.

To celebrate the return of the sun and to experience the seasonal return of hope and growth is much older than Christianity itself. Christianity has co-opted the season, so let's not be too prissy about what happens this time of year.

Humankind needs that solstice celebration. The Jews have bumped Hanukkah into a winter celebration; Kwanza has just appeared in the last generation as another response to winter's chill and death.

So, let's not be so smart alecky to think that we Christians invented the season. We didn't. It was around long before us and we have little to crab about it being co-opted.

The celebrations, the giving of gifts, the feasting, the prayers for the return of the king who brought new life, and the gathering of families have long predated our use (as Christians) of the this solstice time.

We celebrate with the whole of humankind, what we style as incarnation. . . that is the bringing of God into the life of His people. And we do it in a fashion that is more sublime than any truth or myth ever created.

Luke and Matthew can't really tell us where Jesus was born. No one knows for sure when Christ was born (though we can be pretty sure it wasn't on Dec. 25), and for skeptics, there are some real questions about Jesus' progenitors.

But we do know one thing for sure: The entrance of this holy child into human history changed us once and forever.

The Rev. Lance A. B. Gifford is rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Mount Washington.

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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