-Adoration of the Shepherds by Dutch painter Matthias Stomer, 1632, please click on the image for greater detail
“Among the solemnities of Holy Church there are three which have been celebrated at all times and which have their original source in that great feast of Passover which was observed in the Old Law.
These three feasts are all called Pasch, or Passage, or Passover (Ex. 12:11). Today’s feast was instituted to commemorate Our Lord’s passage from His Divinity to our humanity.
The second passage is that from His Passion and death to His Resurrection, His passage from mortality to immortality, which we celebrate all during Holy Week and at Easter.
The third passage is celebrated at Pentecost, the day on which Our Lord adopted the Gentiles (Cf. Acts 2:17, 39) and permitted them to pass from infidelity to the happiness of becoming His well-beloved children, the greatest happiness possible for the Church. All these feasts find their source in today’s mystery.
But you may say at this point that it is not usual to preach at night. And I reply that it was indeed the custom in the primitive church, while it was in its first flower and vigor.
St. Gregory bears witness to this in his homily for this day. The early Christians even said the three nocturns of Matins separately, rising three times during the night for this purpose.
Moreover, they went to choir seven times a day to recite the Office, thereby fulfilling verse 164 of Psalm 118 (119). St. Augustine says that they even preached three times on this feast: first at Midnight Mass, then at the Mass, and finally at the Mass during the day.
So great was the fervor of those early Christians that nothing wearied them. The least among them was of grater value than the best of religious of today.
We have become so cold since those early days that we must now shorten the Mass, the Office, and sermons.
But this is not to the point. Rather, I intend to speak to you first of which the Church sets before us this day, and then of what we should hope for and do in light of this faith.
If I do not finish all that I want to say I shall do so later in the day, if God gives us the time.
Before beginning my discourse I wish to remind you that I like to use analogies when I preach. I will do so here, too.
Now in all that we do or plan, if we are wise we keep its purpose or goal in mind (Ecclus. [Sir.] 7:40 ), for we should have one.
For example, if someone intends to build a house or a palace he must first consider whether it is to be a lodging for a vine-dresser or peasant or if it is for a lord, since obviously he would use entirely different plans depending on the rank of the person who is to live there.
Now the Eternal Father did just that when He build this world. He intended to create it for the Incarnation of His Son, the Eternal Word.
The end or goal of His work was thus its beginning, for Divine Wisdom had foreseen from all eternity that His Word would assume our nature in coming to earth.
This was His intent even before Lucifer and the world were created and our first parents sinned.
Our true and certain tradition holds that sixteen hundred twenty-two years ago Our Lord came to this world and, in assuming our nature, became man.
Thus we are celebrating the Savior’s birth on earth. But before speaking of that birth let us say something of the Word’s divine and eternal birth.
The Father eternally begets His Son, who is like Him and co-eternal with Him. He had no beginning, being in all things equal to His Father.
Yet we speak of the son being born for us from the Father’s bosom, from His substance, as we speak of the rays coming forth from the bosom of the sun, even though the sun and its rays are but one and the same substance.
We are forced to speak thus, recognizing the inadequacy of our words. Were we angels we would be able to speak of God in a far more adequate and excellent way.
Alas, we are only a little dust, children who really do not know what we are talking about. The Son then, begotten of the Father, proceeds from the Father without occupying any other place.
He is born in Heaven of His Father, without a mother. As sole origin of the Most Blessed Trinity the Father remains the Virgin of virgins.
On earth the Son is born of His Mother, Our Lady, without a father. Let us say a word about these two births, for which we have true and certain proofs, as I said a while ago.
The Evangelist (Lk. 1:35) assures us that the Divine Word became flesh in the most holy Virgin’s womb when the angel announced to her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and that the power of the Most High would overshadow her.
This is not, of course, to say that in Jesus Christ there are two persons.
In the hypostatic union, the Word became flesh is true God and true man, and this without any separation, from the moment of His Conception.
Some examples may help. Naturalists tell us that honey is made of a certain gum called “manna,” which falls from the sky, and unites or mixes with flowers which in turn draw their substance from the earth.
In joining together, these two substances result in the one honey. In our Lord and Master, Divinity has similarly united our nature with His own, and God has made us sharers of the Divine nature in some fashion (2 Peter 1:4), for He was made man like us (Phil. 2:7; Heb. 4:15).
Note that there is a difference between honey collected from thyme and all other kinds. It is much more excellent than that called heraclean, which is made from the aconite and other flowers.
As soon as we taste it we recognize that it is form thyme, because it is both bitter and sweet. Heraclean honey, on the other hand, causes death.
It is similar with Our Lord’s sacred humanity. Springing from Mary’s virginal soil, His humanity is very different from ours, which is wholly tainted by corruption and sin.
Indeed, because the Eternal Father willed His only-begotten Son to be the Head and absolute Lord of all creatures (Col. 1:15–18), He willed that the most holy Virgin should be the most excellent of all creatures, since He had chosen her from all eternity to be the Mother of His Divine Son.
In truth, Mary’s sacred womb was a mystical hive in which the Holy Spirit formed this honeycomb wither most pure blood.
Further, the Word created Mary and was born of her, just as the bee makes honey and honey the bee, for one never sees a bee without honey nor honey without a bee.
At His birth we have very clear proofs of Our Lord’s Divinity. Angels descend from Heaven and announce to the shepherds that a Savior is born (Luke 2:8–14) to them. Magi come to adore Him (Matt. 2:1–11).
This clearly shows us that He was more than man, just as, on the contrary, His moaning as He lies in His manger shivering from the cold shows us that He was truly man.
Let us consider the Eternal Father’s goodness. Had He so desired He could have created His Son’s humanity as He did that of our first parents, or even given Him an angelic nature, for it was in His power to do so.
Had he willed to do so Our Lord would not have been of our nature. We would not then have had any alliance with Him.
But His goodness was such that He made Himself our brother in order that He might both give us an example (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:11–17) and render us sharers in His glory.
It was for this reason that He willed to be of Abraham’s seed, for the most holy Virgin was indeed of Abraham’s race, for it is said of her: Abraham and his seed (Lk. 1:55; Rom. 1:3; Gal. 3:16).
I leave you at the feet of this blessed Mother and Child so that, like little bees, you may gather the milk and honey that flow from these holy mysteries and her chaste breasts, while waiting for me to continue, if God grants us the grace and gives us the time. I beg Him to bless us with His benediction. Amen.”
“It’s that time of year again when many Christians encounter claims that pagan deities predating Jesus Christ were born on December 25. In popular films, Internet videos, and other media you can find long lists of gods who were supposedly born on the same day.
This idea is not limited to unbelievers. I have heard many Christians claim that the date of Christmas was intended to provide an alternative to pagan celebrations. In some ways it has become a pious legend. On the other hand, some Fundamentalist denominations refuse to celebrate Christmas for this reason.
Of all the deities of whom people make this claim, only three can be found to come close: Saturn, Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun), and Mithras.
Saturnalia was the feast dedicated to the Roman god Saturn. Established around 220 B.C., this feast was originally celebrated on December 17. Eventually, the feast was extended to last an entire week, ending on December 23. The supposed connection to Christmas is based on the proximity of the two festivals to each other.
It has been suggested that Christians in the 4th Century assigned December 25th as Christ’s birthday (and hence Christmas) because pagans already observed this day as a holiday. In this way the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday would be sidestepped, thus making the Christianizing of the population easier.
If the suggestion were correct, one would expect to find at least a single reference by early Christians to support it. Instead we find scores of quotations from Church Fathers indicating a desire to distance themselves from pagan religions.
Sol Invictus and Mithras
The feast of Sol Invictus was the attempt by the Roman emperor Aurelian to reform the cult of Sol, the Roman sun god, and and reintroduce it to his people, inaugurating Sol’s temple and holding games for the first time in A.D. 274. Not only was this festival not annual, it also cannot be historically documented as having been established on December 25 by Aurelian (cf. Steven HijMans, Sol Invictus, The Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas, Mouseion, Series III, vol. 3, pp. 377-398).
According to inscriptions on candle votives and other ancient works of art, there is a link between Mithras and Sol Invictus. In some cases, it appears the Mithraists believed that Mithras and Sol were two different manifestations of the same god. In others, they appear to be two gods united as one. These connections are difficult to understand given our limited knowledge of the Mithraic belief system, but they are important because they help to explain why skeptics claim the birthday of Mithras was celebrated on December 25.
A manuscript known as the Chronography of 354 shows the birth of Sol Invictus being celebrated on December 25. Given the fact that the Mithraists equated their god with Sol in one way or another, it is understandable that they may have appropriated the date as their own. The problem for the skeptic is that no evidence exists to suggest that Aurelian was a Mithraist, or that he even had Mithraism in mind when he instituted the feast of Sol Invictus. The connection of Mithra to December 25 is only coincidental.
The deathblow to both the Mithras and Sol Invictus parallels is that the Chronography of 354 is the earliest mention of any pagan god being celebrated on December 25. The celebration of the birth of Christ by Christians is also mentioned on the calendar as having been celebrated on that day, which diminishes the likelihood that the pagan feast came first. At the very least, it negates the claim that it can be proved from the historical record that any December 25 pagan festival predates the Christian tradition.
The Reason for Choosing December 25
Although the date of Christ’s birth is not given to us in Scripture, there is documented evidence that December 25 was already of some significance to Christians prior to A.D. 354. One example can be found in the writings of Hyppolytus of Rome, who explains in his Commentary on the book of Daniel (c. A.D. 204) that the Lord’s birth was believed to have occurred on that day:
For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.
The reference to Adam can be understood in light of another of Hyppolytus’ writings, the Chronicon, where he explains that Jesus was born nine months after the anniversary of Creation. According to his calculations, the world was created on the vernal equinox, March 25, which would mean Jesus was born nine months later, on December 25.
In the West, the birth of Christ was celebrated on December 25, and in the East on January 6.
Duchesne writes “one is inclined to believe that the Roman Church made choice of the 25th of December in order to enter into rivalry with Mithraism. This reason, however, leaves unexplained the choice of the 6th of January” (ibid., p. 261). His solution, therefore, was that the date of Christ’s birth was decided by using as a starting point the same day on which he was believed to have died. This would explain the discrepancies between the celebrations in the East and West.
Given the great aversion on the part of some Christians to anything pagan, the logical conclusion here is that one celebration has nothing to do with the other. In his book, Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI explains:
The claim used to be made that December 25 developed in opposition to the Mithras myth, or as a Christian response to the cult of the unconquered sun promoted by Roman emperors in the third century in their efforts to establish a new imperial religion. However, these old theories can no longer be sustained. The decisive factor was the connection of creation and Cross, of creation and Christ’s conception (p. 105-107).
While these explanations of how December 25 came to be the date of Christmas are all plausible, we know one thing for sure: The evidence that this day held a special significance to Christians predates the proof of a supposed celebration of Sol Invictus or other pagan deities on that day.
That the Christians chose a date so close to the winter solstice is also not proof that this was done to mimic pagan festivals. The various pagan religions all had festivals spanning the calendar. Whatever month the early Christians might have otherwise chosen would still place Christmas near some pagan celebration, and oppositional theorists would still be making the same claims.
The solstice was important to everyone for agricultural reasons in the same way water is important to the survival of human beings, and so we see rituals involving water showing up in various religions. That doesn’t prove that one borrowed the idea or theme from another.”
Do environmental conditions contradict what the Gospels claim?
CHALLENGE: Christians are wrong to celebrate Christmas on December 25. Jesus couldn’t have been born then. It would have been too cold for the shepherds to keep their flocks outdoors (Luke 2:8).
DEFENSE: There are several problems with this challenge.
First, the Catholic Church celebrates Jesus’ birth on December 25, but this is a matter of custom rather than doctrine. It is not Church teaching that this is when Jesus was born (note that the matter isn’t even mentioned in the Catechism).
Second, although most Christians today celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, this was not the only date proposed. Around A.D. 194, Clement of Alexandria stated Christ was born November 18. Other early proposals included January 10, April 19 or 20, and May 20 (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed., §488, §553). By far the most common proposals, however, were January 6 (ibid., §§554-61) and December 25 (ibid., §§562-68).
While the last was eventually adopted by the Catholic Church for use in its liturgy, the fact that the Church did not declare alternate proposals heretical shows the matter was not considered essential to the Faith.
Third, the proposals that put Jesus’ birth in the colder part of the year (November 18, December 25, January 6, and January 10) are not ruled out by the fact that there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night.
Ancient Jews did not have large indoor spaces for housing sheep. Flocks were kept outdoors during winter in Judaea, as they are elsewhere in the world today, including in places where snow is common (search for “winter sheep care” on the Internet). Sheep are adapted to life outdoors. That’s why they have wool, which keeps body heat in and moisture out.
Sheep are kept outdoors in winter in Israel today: “William Hendricksen quotes a letter dated Jan. 16, 1967, received from the New Testament scholar Harry Mulder, then teaching in Beirut, in which the latter tells of being in Shepherd Field at Bethlehem on the just-passed Christmas Eve, and says: ‘Right near us a few flocks of sheep were nestled. Even the lambs were not lacking. . . . It is therefore definitely not impossible that the Lord Jesus was born in December’” (ibid., §569).
The Prophecy of Immanuel
Could the Gospel writer have misunderstood the Old Testament prophecy?
CHALLENGE: Matthew misunderstands Isaiah’s prophecy of Immanuel (Isa. 7:14). It doesn’t point to Jesus.
DEFENSE: Matthew understands the prophecy better than you think.
The biblical authors recognized Scripture as operating on multiple levels. For example, Matthew interprets the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as a fulfillment of the prophetic statement, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” In its original context, it is obvious the “son” of God being discussed is Israel: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called my son” (Hos. 11:1).
Matthew understood this. He had read the first half of the verse and knew that, on the primary, literal level, the statement applied to the nation of Israel. But he recognized that on another level it applied to Christ as the divine Son who recapitulates and fulfills the aspirations of Israel.
In the same way, it is obvious in Isaiah that on the primary, literal level the prophecy of Immanuel applied to the time of King Ahaz (732-716 B.C.). At this point, Syria had forged a military alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel that threatened to conquer Jerusalem (Isa. 7:1-2). God sent Isaiah to reassure Ahaz the alliance would not succeed (Isa. 7:3-9) and told him to name a sign that God would give him as proof (Isa. 7:10-11).
Ahaz balked and refused to name a sign (Isa. 7:12), so God declared one: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. . . . For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isa. 7:14-16).
For this sign to be meaningful to Ahaz, it would have to be fulfilled in his own day—indeed, very quickly. It therefore points, on the primary, literal level, to a child conceived at that time (perhaps Ahaz’s son, the future King Hezekiah).
This was as obvious to Matthew as it is to us, but—like the other New Testament authors—he recognized the biblical text as having multiple dimensions, so the prophecy was not only fulfilled in Ahaz’s day but also pointed to Christ as “Immanuel” (Hebrew, “God with us”).
Is Christmas Pagan?
From Saturnalia to Sol Invictus, there is no shortage of theories
CHALLENGE: Christmas is based on a pagan holiday.
DEFENSE: There are multiple responses to this challenge.
First, which pagan holiday are we talking about? Sometimes Saturnalia—a Roman festival honoring the god Saturn—is proposed. But Saturnalia was held on December 17 (and later extended through December 23). It wasn’t December 25.
Another proposal is Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Latin, “The Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun”), but the evidence this was the basis of the dating of Christmas is problematic. The Christian Chronography of A.D. 354 records the “Birthday of the Unconquerable” was celebrated on that date in 354 AD, but the identity of “the Unconquerable” is unclear. Since it’s a Christian document that elsewhere (twice) lists Jesus’ birthday as December 25, it could be the Unconquerable Christ—not the sun—whose birth was celebrated.
Second, correlation is not causation. Even if Christmas and Sol Invictus were both on December 25, Christmas might have been the basis of Sol Invictus, or the reverse, or it might just be a coincidence. If you want to claim the date of Sol Invictus is the basis for the date of Christmas, you need evidence.
Third, that evidence is hard to come by. Even if the Chronology of A.D. 354 refers to Sol Invictus being celebrated on December 25, this is the first reference to the fact, and we know some Christians held that Jesus was born on that date long before 354 AD.
For example, St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-c. 240) stated in his commentary on Daniel that Jesus was born on December 25, and he wrote around a century and a half before 354 (see Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed., §562). Further, Sol Invictus wasn’t even an official Roman cult until 274 AD, when the Emperor Aurelian made it one.
Fourth, if Christians were subverting Sol Invictus, we should find the Church Fathers saying, “Let’s subvert Sol Invictus by celebrating Christmas instead.” But we don’t. The Fathers who celebrate December 25 sincerely think that’s when Jesus was born (ibid., §§562-567).
Finally, even if Christmas was timed to subvert a pagan holiday, so what? Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and celebrating the birth of Christ is a good thing. So is subverting paganism. If the early Christians were doing both, big deal!”
“Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25? There are popular theories that the December 25 dating was a Christian response to the pagans’ feast of Saturnalia or of Sol Invictus, but neither of these theories seems to work out historically.
Saturnalia, an ancient Roman feast, was celebrated on December 17. That later stretched into a week of festivities lasting until the 23rd, but it doesn’t explain why Christmas would be on the 25th.
What about Sol Invictus? According to this theory, the Emperor Aurelian instituted a celebration of the god Sol on December 25, 274 called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“Nativity of the Invincible Sun”). But there are serious problems with this theory as well. The University of Alberta’s Steven Hijmans argues that the theory “lacks even the most basic respect for internal logic and cohesion” by imagining that the Romans willingly “downgraded the old and hallowed Roman cults in favor of a new and oriental one” in the 270s, but then fought to preserve this new sun religion against Christianity fifty years later. As with Saturnalia, the Sol Invictus theory poses basic calendar problems as well, since
December 25 was neither a longstanding nor an especially important official feast day of Sol. It is mentioned only in the Calendar of 354 and as far as I can tell the suggestion that it was established by Aurelian [emperor for 270-275] cannot be proven. In fact, there is no firm evidence that this feast of Sol on December 25 antedates the feast of Christmas at all. The traditional feast days of Sol, as recorded in the early imperial fasti, were August 8, August 9, August 28, and December 11.
Although the Emperor Aurelian did introduce agones, athletic contests to be held in Sol’s honor every four years, these were held from October 19 to the 22nd, with the 22nd being (apparently) the highest feast day to Sol.
A century and a half before the first written record of a nativity feast for Sol Invictus, we find Christians citing the 25th of December as the likely day of Jesus’ birth. Their reason for doing so was fascinating. As Cdl. Ratzinger pointed out in Spirit of the Liturgy, “astonishingly, the starting point for dating the birth of Christ was March 25.” That is, Christians didn’t start with focusing on December 25. They began with March 25 and worked from there.
So what was so special about March 25? Tertullian, around the year 197, writes that Christ died on the cross “in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April.” The “calends,” the root of our word calendar, is the first day of the month, and so Tertullian’s claim is that Jesus died on the 25th of March. St. Hippolytus of Rome agrees, adding that he was born on December 25:
For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th [eight days before the kalends of January], Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th [eight days before the kalends of April] Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were consuls.
That’s from his Commentary on Daniel, dating back to perhaps 204. All of this is well before the as yet unborn Emperor Aurelian is claimed to have introduced Romans to the cult of Sol Invictus. As the University of Birmingham’s Candida Moss explains:
The real reason for the selection of Dec. 25 seems to have been that it is exactly nine months after March 25, the traditional date of Jesus’ crucifixion (which can be inferred from other dates given in the New Testament). As Christians developed the theological idea that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same date, they set the date of his birth nine months later.
But this still leaves one major question: where did Christians come up with “the theological idea that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same date”? Some scholars have speculated that it’s connected with Jewish thought (and that may be true), but the evidence points elsewhere. We get a hint at the answer from St. Augustine, who writes in De Trinitate:
For [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.
Augustine is highlighting a fascinating detail about the Passion narratives in the Gospels that almost all of us miss. Three of the four Gospel writers point out that the tomb in which Jesus was laid was new. St. Matthew tells us that “Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, and laid it in his own new tomb” (27:59). St. Luke describes it as a tomb “where no one had ever yet been laid” (23:53), and St. John calls it “a new tomb where no one had ever been laid” (19:41). Why would that detail matter to the evangelists? Because it showed the tomb as uniquely set aside for God. Hagios, the Greek word for “holy,” refers to something “set apart by (or for) God, holy, sacred.” The tomb is holy, preserved exclusively for Christ.
This is also how the early Christians understood Mary: that she was, both in body and soul, uniquely set apart for God. The last eight chapters of Ezekiel are a prophecy of a coming temple, a prophecy referring not to a physical building, but to the body of Christ (see John 2:18-22; 7:37-39). Around this temple was a gate, and “this gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut” (Ezek. 44:2). The early Christians, including Augustine, saw this as an obvious reference to the perpetual virginity of Mary.
That’s not the way many of us read Scripture today. Chances are, we’ve glossed over the details of the temple gate and the virginal tomb without giving them a second thought (assuming we’ve bothered to read Ezekiel 44 and the Passion narratives at all). But until we learn to chew on Scripture the way the early Christians did, their settling on December 25 as the likely nativity of Our Lord will seem arbitrary . . . or we’ll fall victim to discredited theories about Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.”
“The celebration of Christmas draws the most comparisons to pagan rites, such as those commemorating the winter solstice, and specifically ancient Roman celebrations for the gods Saturn and Sol Invictus. These comparisons even influenced the Puritans, who rejected the celebration of Christmas as “Foolstide.” Puritan influence in the United States kept the nation from recognizing Christmas as a federal holiday until 1870.
The feast of the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn, was a two-day celebration of the end of the planting season and was known as the Saturnalia. During the reign of Emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.-A.D. 14) the festival would begin on December 17, but that date was later moved by Emperor Domitian (r. 51-96) to December 25. By the second century A.D., the celebration encompassed an entire week.
The cult of Sol Invictus (the “Unconquered Sun”) was introduced in 274 by Emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275), but it was not associated with an annual event. Although the date for the celebration of Sol Invictus’s birthday was December 25—a date sometimes reckoned as the winter solstice in the ancient world—the only documentary source for that date is a fourth-century illustrated calendar for a wealthy Christian known as the Chronography of 354.
It is easy for skeptics to claim that Christmas was borrowed from paganism, because Scripture does not provide a date or even a time of year for Christ’s birth. But the lack of calendar specificity in the Bible does not prove that the Church decided to “baptize” a pagan celebration with the Nativity of the Lord. There is no early Christian or pagan writing that indicates that December 25 was picked because of its correspondence with the Saturnalia or the birthday of Sol Invictus. In fact, early Christians went out of their way to demonstrate how different they were from the pagans. They recognized that the Nativity merited a place in the liturgical calendar, so by the third century, Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in the West and January 6 in the East.
Fixing the date for Christmas on December 25 had less to do with pagan custom, the winter solstice, or Sol Invictus and more to do with Jewish tradition than pagan custom. In Jewish tradition, March 25 was celebrated as the date of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, when the Lord promised to send a lamb to complete the sacrifice. It also marked the first day of the Creation, when God brought forth light. The early Christians easily recognized the connection between Christ the Lamb and the Light, and dated both his conception and death to March 25. If the Incarnation occurred on March 25, then it follows that the Nativity occurred nine months later on December 25. For the early Christians “the decisive factor was the connection of creation and cross, of creation and Christ’s conception,” not the desire to baptize pagan celebrations.”
-by T. L. Frazier
“Christmas is when the Church confesses the shocking scandal of the Incarnation. It is the scandal that the Second Person of the Trinity, the only Son of God, true God from true God and one in being with the Father, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). As a witness to this profound mystery, Christmas has rightly held a lofty place among the feasts of Christendom.
Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that heresy, beginning with Gnosticism in the first century, often has its roots in some denial of the Incarnation, in creating a dualistic divorce of flesh and spirit. This is the great stumbling stone. It’s so much simpler to enthrone Christ as the supreme spiritual being up in the celestial realms or to revere him as another wise teacher of moral precepts, but God and man simultaneously? This is a hard saying; who can accept it?
Difficulties notwithstanding, the Incarnation is for Christians the very measure of orthodoxy. Thus it’s not at all puzzling why sectarians such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Armstrongites, who deny this revealed truth, aren’t particularly fond of Christmas. Indeed, a Jehovah’s Witness can be disfellowshiped for celebrating the holiday, utterly cut off from friends and family. Yet there are even some within Protestantism (Jimmy Swaggart comes to mind), who gladly bear with Catholics the “scandal” that the child born of the Virgin is “Immanuel,” or “God with us” (Is. 7:14), but who are ambivalent toward the celebration of Christmas itself because of the holiday’s supposed “pagan” overtones. Still there is one thing that tends to unite those who do and those who decline to celebrate Christmas: a regrettable ignorance about the origins and meaning of the season.
Like the Jews, the early Christians saw time as something sanctified by God, and they too developed a liturgical calendar. For example, we know from a controversy involving Polycarp (70-156 AD) that the feast of Easter was regularly celebrated at least as early as the second century. Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna who, Irenaeus (130-202) tells us, had “known [the apostle] John and others who had seen the Lord.” He had traveled to Rome toward the end of his life to persuade Pope Anicetus to adopt the practice of the churches in Asia Minor of celebrating Easter on the fourteenth of the Jewish month of Nisan (the “quartodeciman” date). One of the problems with this was that the fourteenth of Nisan doesn’t regularly fall on a Sunday, and the rest of the Church insisted on celebrating Easter on the day of the week the Lord had risen. During the pontificate of Pope Victor I (189-198), the dispute became so heated that he threatened to excommunicate all of Asia Minor over the issue.
Early Christian worship often used the customs and symbols associated with the paganism around it. One instance: The fish was a symbol of fertility in the ancient world and of eroticism in particular for the Romans. This pagan symbol became one of the most important symbols of the Church, the Greek word for “fish,” ichthus, becoming a condensed confession of the faith. The five Greek letters are an acrostic of the statement, “Iesous Christos Theou HuiosSoter,” which translates as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”
Court ceremonies were adopted for the Christian liturgy, sending the message to the pagan world that Christ was its true emperor. Since the days of Nero emperors had been employing the term kurios, a Greek word meaning “Lord,” as a distinctive title to promote the cult of emperor worship. Domitian (emperor from 81-96) had himself declared “Lord and god” (Greek: kurios kai theos; cf. John 20:28), and from then on the title became a favorite of the emperors. In contrast, Christians made a point of renaming the Roman “Day of the Sun” (Dies Solis, Latin for “Sunday”) as kuriakos hemera (Greek for “the Lord’s Day”; cf. Rev. 1:10), just as “July” had been dedicated to Julius Caesar and “August” to Augustus Caesar. The point was lost on no one and fueled tensions between the Christians and pagans.
The confrontational posture which Christianity adopted toward paganism is found behind the feast of Christmas as well. It was customary in the Hellenistic world to celebrate publicly the birthdays of important people such as emperors and princes, much as we do today with President’s Day. Christians couldn’t very well observe the birthdays of dead emperors while neglecting the risen Lord. What sort of witness would that give the unbelieving world? Not only that, but a celebration of the birth of Christ would fortify the Church against heretics like the Gnostics, who denied that Jesus was a historical, embodied personage.
The problem, though, was that the exact day of Christ’s birth was unknown, so a date on which to celebrate it had to be chosen arbitrarily. Now the pagans already had a fixed festal schedule, so any day of the year the Church chose to celebrate a feast would be a day of some pagan celebration. Here was an opportunity for the Church to confront paganism, and so it aimed at one of the biggest and most important cults in Rome. The day chosen was December 25, when everyone celebrated the pagan feast of the dies natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.”[Though the Church doesn’t claim that Jesus was actually born on December 25, opponents of Christmas spill considerable ink arguing that Christ couldn’t have been born at this time. The reason is because of credulous people like Setsuko, “a devout Catholic for 36 years.” This Japanese woman, now a Jehovah’s Witness, relates, “It was painful to be faced with Bible truths that refuted my beliefs. I even had alopecia neurotica, loss of hair due to being upset. Gradually, however, the light of truth shone into my heart. I was stunned to learn that Jesus could not have been born in a cold, rainy December, when shepherds would not be tending their sheep out in the open night (Luke 2:8-12). It shattered my image of the Nativity, for we had used cotton wool as snow to decorate scenes of sheep and shepherds” (Awake!, December 15, 1991, 7). But Setsuko presumably knows better now, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society having explained to her that “Jesus died at the time of the Jewish Passover, which commenced April 1, 33 C.E. [Actually, it occurred on April 3, 33, not April 1.] Moreover, Luke 3:21-23 informs us that Jesus was about 30 years of age when he commenced his ministry. Since this lasted three-and-a-half years, he was about 33-and-a-half years old at the time of his death. Christ would have been a full 34 years old six months later, which would thus be about October 1. If we count back to see when Jesus was born, we reach not December 25 or January 6, but October 1 of the year 2 B.C.E.” ( The Watchtower, December 15, 1990, 4). Assuming that Jesus didn’t die on April 7 or 8 in 30 (as scholars suggest), and that he began his ministry precisely on his thirtieth birthday and not a few months later, and that his ministry lasted exactly three and a half years to the day, this theory could sound plausible–but still iffy.].
December 25 arrives around the time of the winter solstice, when the days get shorter and the sun seems to be “dying.” After the winter solstice, the sun appears to regain its strength, is “born again” as it were, as the days become longer. Consequently, December 25 was the “birthday” of the Persian sun-god known as Mithras, originally one of the lesser demigods of the Zoroastrian religion. Mithras had become the principal Persian deity by 400 B.C. and his cult quickly overran Asia Minor. According to Plutarch, it was introduced into the West around 68 B.C., and became quite popular among the Roman legions.
Unlike those of other Oriental gods introduced into the Empire, the cult of Mithras remained independent of official foundations to finance and propagate it. Its followers worshiped in small groups in subterranean shrines where the clergy employed special effects to make Mithras appear to “manifest” himself among the congregation. Such artifice, which included fireworks, special lighting and mechanical devices, rarely disappointed the religion’s adherents and provided Christian polemicists with some of their best material.
The conflict between Christianity and Mithraism had always been intense, possibly because of certain similarities between the two. The devotees of sun worship tended to be monotheistic. The cult stressed a personal experience of worship, though it excluded women. Originally, as a Zoroastrian demigod, Mithras personified justice and redemption. Later on, as part of a “mystery religion,” he came to embody all that was good which warred against evil. Mithraism had rituals that included a kind of baptism, a strong code of moral conduct, and the promise of an afterlife.
Christians, for their part, called Christ the “Sun of Righteousness” from the prophecy of the Resurrection in Malachi 4:2-3: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things, says the Lord Almighty.”
Inspired by Ezekiel 43:1-2, which speaks of the glory of the Lord coming from the east, Christians believed the Second Coming would be from the east whence comes the sun rising to dispel the darkness. After all, the world was in darkness till Christ, the light of the world, expelled the night. Consequently, Christians prayed toward the east on Sunday mornings, with crosses being painted on the eastern wall of house-churches.[One such cross was found in a house in the city of Herculaneum, which was buried in A.D. 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Tertullian, writing around 197 in his Apology, talks about Christians “praying in the direction of the rising sun.”]. When churches were built to accommodate Christian worship, these were also oriented toward the east. Christians were even buried facing the east in expectation of the final Trump.
By the second half of the third century, the cults of the classical gods were on the wane and paganism sought an infusion of new life from the Oriental cults. Thus Emperor Aurelian officially established worship of a Roman version of a sun god, under the name of Sol Invictus, as the principal cult of the empire on December 25, 274, after his victory over Zenobia, queen of Palmyra. He built a huge temple for Sol Invictus on the Campus Martius in Rome and made December 25 a national holiday.[Edwin Yamauchi cautions against too close an identification between Mithras and Sol Invictus: “The close identification of Mithras with the sun is seen in his titular, Deo Soli Invicto Mithrae, and its variations. . . . While Mithras was closely identified with Sol Invictus, it was the latter that was formally recognized and not the former. Mithras never appears on imperial coins. The sole public example of imperial devotion to Mithras is the dedication by Diocletian at Carnuntum in 307. Mithraism was a competitor of Christianity. . . . But Mithraism was not as potent a rival as the cult of Sol Invictus” (Persia and the Bible [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990], 519). While Mithraism may have taken a back seat to Sol Invictus, still it grew to such an extent that, by the time of Constantine’s conversion, there were fifty Mithraic temples in Rome alone(Desmond O’Grady,Caesar, Christ, & Constantine: A History of the Early Church in Rome[Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1991], 20.)]. But Providence had different plans for the empire
. After Constantine’s battle for the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, which delivered Rome into his hands, and the Edict of Toleration in February 313, the pagans witnessed the previously “divine” emperor kneeling before the true “Lord and God.” Christ was now ascendent, having vanquished Sol Invictus in the battle for supremacy in the empire. As expressed in a fourth-century work, De solistitiis et aequinoctiis, concerning Christ’s “Unconquerable Birth”: “Who is as unconquered as our Lord, who overcame and conquered death?” And although the cult lingered on (Augustine would later speak of the crying and shouting of the pagans on December 25), Sol Invictus was doomed to fade into permanent eclipse. Not even Julian “the Apostate,” Constantine’s nephew who came to the throne in 361, was able to re-impose paganism on the Empire, try though he did.
Unlike the battle for the Milvian Bridge, the battle for religious supremacy was not to be won overnight, especially in the rural areas where paganism was most entrenched. In the first half of the fourth century the worship of the Sol Invictus was the last great pagan cult the Church had to conquer, and it did so in part with the establishment of Christmas, which proclaimed that “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). At the head of the Deposition Martyrum of the so-called Roman Chronograph of 354 (the Philocalian Calendar) there is listed the natus Christus in Betleem Judaeae (“the birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea”) as being celebrated on December 25. The Deposition was originally composed in 336, so Christmas dates back at least that far.
The most pressing issue within the Church in the fourth century was its conflict with Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ and thus the Incarnation. This long and bitter conflict, as well as that with the Nestorians [This heresy is named after the fifth-century patriarch of Constantinople who denied that the Virgin Mary could be called the “Mother of God,” instead asserting she could only be the mother of Christ’s human nature, not his divinity. Not comprehending that a mother gives birth to a person and not a nature (in this case, the divine Second Person of the Trinity), he essentially claimed that Mary bore only a man loosely united to God, not the single and undivided Second Person who became God and man simultaneously at the Incarnation. Significantly, Nestorius chose to attack Mary’s divine maternity for the first time in a homily on Christmas Day 428.] later on, influenced the contents of the Christmas feast. Pope Leo the Great, combatting Arians (as well as Manichaeans) in the fifth century, seems the first to speak explicitly of Christmas as a celebration of the Incarnation, [Augustine, fifty years earlier, saw Christmas simply as a commemoration of a historical event, not as the celebration of a mystery (a revealed truth surpassing full comprehension) such as Easter. Still, while Leo may have been the first explicitly to connect Christmas to the Incarnation, it seems more than mere coincidence that the Church’s primary feast celebrating this mystery arose alongside Arianism at the beginning of the fourth century. One suspects a connection between the two], thus using Christmas as a bulwark against heresy.
During the Protestant Reformation, while much of northern Europe and England were arbitrarily throwing out “Romanist inventions,” one of the things that needed “reforming” was the liturgical calendar, along with many of the traditional customs that went with the feasts. It had been common to sing carols throughout the year on various feast days, especially processional songs honoring the saints associated with Christmas. The Reformation frowned upon carols and labeled them “papist” and superstitious. The Protestant monarchy of England banned all caroling except for at Christmas.
The Puritans outlawed Christmas itself when they came to power in England in 1642. Celebrating Christmas was considered evidence of “anti-religious,” Royalist sentiment. The Puritans were none-too-pleased that December 25 had been associated with Sol Invictus, and they suspected there were other dubious elements attached to the season as well. Harsh penalties were exacted for celebrating the holiday or even for staying home that day. The Puritans in New England banned Christmas as well; although the ban was eventually lifted, Christmas did not become a legal holiday in America until 1856.
Denunciations of “paganism” are still common from sects which have imbibed this heritage. Some are unabashedly bombastic in their trashing of Christmas, a 400-year-old puritanical tradition seemingly unhindered and unadulterated by progress. We are loudly informed that the customs of merrymaking and exchanging gifts have their real origin not in the rejoicing of the angels before the shepherds and in the gifts given by the Magi, but in the pagan festival of Saturnalia which was celebrated from December 17 to 24.
The lights and greenery are said to come from the Roman New Year of Kalends with its solar associations. It has even been maintained that “feasting and fellowship” were introduced by Teutonic Yule rites, as though feasting and fellowship were unknown to Christians before the conversion of the Teutonic tribes (cf. Acts 2:42, 46)! [See the Awake! (a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publication) articles for December 22, 1992 (8-9), December 8, 1991 (12-13), December 22, 1990 (14), December 8, 1989 (13-16), and December 8, 1988 (17-19). The whole of their rejection of Christmas is based on pagan precursors to certain Christmas customs. This hostile attitude hasn’t always been the case with this sect. A former member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Raymond Franz, has reproduced in his latest book a rare photograph showing Judge Rutherford, the sect’s second president, and the rest of the Bethel staff celebrating Christmas in 1926, complete with tinsel, wreaths, and presents (In Search of Christian Freedom [Atlanta: Commentary Press, 1991], 149). It should be noted that this was seven years after Jesus Christ supposedly chose the Watch Tower Society as the only “untainted” organization on earth through which he would channel all religious truth]. Thus merrymaking, exchanging gifts, greenery, lights, feasting, and fellowship are all suspect because of their previous association with paganism, as if melancholy, selfishness, drabness, fasting, and anti-social withdrawal, the antitheses of these “pagan” customs, would be more appropriate for celebrating the birth of the Savior.
When the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for feasting and merrymaking, Jesus replied, “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; in those days they will fast” (Luke 5:34-35). Accordingly the Church feasts and makes merry at Christmas as Christ enters the world, and it fasts during Lent, preparing for his leaving it on Good Friday.
The popular myth concerning the pagan origin of Christmas trees exemplifies this puritanical phobia. In reality the Christmas tree tradition is derived from the Paradise tree, which was adorned with apples on December 24 in honor of Adam and Eve, whose transgression is reversed by the coming of Jesus, the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-19), on the next day. The tree was originally a stage prop used in medieval German plays of mankind’s fall from grace, and in time people began the practice of having trees in their own homes on that day. Our contemporary custom of adorning Christmas trees with balls likely arose from those prop apples. [The Encyclopedia Americana (International Ed.) relates a widely held belief that it was Martin Luther who originated the custom of Christmas trees in Germany: “The sight of an evergreen tree on Christmas Eve, with stars blazing above, is said to have made a great impression on him, and he put up a similar tree, decorated with lighted candles, in his home” (Danbury: Grolier, 1991), 6:667. The first proper “Christmas tree” as such is found at Strasbourg in 1605.].
When shown there’s nothing to fear from Christmas trees, antagonists will cite Jeremiah 10:3-4 (King James Version, of course) to “prove” that God scorns them nonetheless: “For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” The prophet is here condemning idolatry, but, taken out of context, the passage might seem to suggest someone cutting down a Christmas tree, nailing it to a stand, and decorating it with glittering baubles.
The Hebrew word huqqot, which the King James translators have rendered as “customs” in Jeremiah 10:3, is better translated in this verse as “statutes,” as in religious ordinances (Ex. 27:21, Lev. 18:3). The religion of the people is a delusion, says Jeremiah, and he then describes the construction of an idol which is similar to descriptions in other parts of the Old Testament (Ps. 115:4, 135:15; Is. 2:20, 31:7, 40:18-20, 41:7, 44:9-20, 46:5-7; Hab. 2:19). The tree was felled, carved, overlaid with silver and gold, and finally made sturdy by nailing it down to prevent it from toppling over (1 Sam. 5:1-4, Is. 41:7). In an exquisite touch of satire, Jeremiah describes the idol dressed in royal blue and purple garments (Jer. 10:9) as being “like a scarecrow in a melon patch” (v. 5). Unless one intends to accuse the person with a Christmas tree of idolatry, Jeremiah 10:3-4 is simply irrelevant to the issue. [Even Ralph Woodrow, who devotes an entire chapter to excoriating Christmas in his virulently anti-Catholic Babylon Mystery Religion (Riverside: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1966 [1990 edition], 145), concedes that Jeremiah 10:3-4 is taken out of context. “The people in the days of Jeremiah, as the context shows, were actually making an idol out of the tree, the word `workman’ being not merely a lumberjack, but one who formed idols (cf. Isaiah 40:19, 20, Hosea 8:4-6). The word `axe’ refers here specifically to a carving tool. In citing this portion of Jeremiah, we do not mean to infer that people who today place Christmas trees in their homes or churches are worshipping these trees.” Then what exactly does he mean by citing verses condemning idolatry when discussing the custom of decorating Christmas trees? “Such customs do, however, provide vivid examples of how mixtures have been made.” Woodrow doesn’t elaborate further].
Still, the vestiges of paganism found in Christmas festivities aren’t to be overlooked. Holly, mistletoe, yule logs, singing, cooking special foods, and decorating the home were all once associated with this time of year in the non-Christian world. Once converted, people did not think of banning these things. They continued to sing, eat big meals, and decorate their homes because these customs were viewed as intrinsically compatible with the new faith. It was paganism that Christianity opposed, not the culture of the people being evangelized. This is why, for example, we still exchange rings and throw rice at weddings even though these customs are holdovers from paganism. Indeed, the early Christians would never have used the fish as a symbol of Christ if they’d disdained everytoken of paganism.
Now we ask the big question: How should these mementoes of a bygone pagan era be regarded today? One possibility is to view them as the evidence of the Church’s victory over false gods, as stuffed heads adorning the walls of the hunter’s trophy room. Even as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is enshrined in Scripture for our instruction (2 Pet. 2:6, Rom. 15:4), so Christ’s victory over paganism is preserved in the memory of the Church.[The apostle Paul himself didn’t hesitate to draw upon elements of paganism, insofar as they were true in themselves, where it would assist in elucidating the gospel. He preached to the Athenians, “Yet [God] is not far from each one of us, for `In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, `For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:28). The first quotation, scholars say, is based on an earlier saying of Epimenides of Knossos (sixth century B.C.). In the second, Paul is citing the Stoic poet Aratus of Soli (third century B.C.), and the saying is also found, in the plural, in Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus (third century B.C.). In Titus 1:12 Paul again cites Epimenides, who had been elevated to an almost mythical status by his fellow Cretans. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others mention Epimenides as a prophet, which is why Paul cites him as “one of their own prophets.”].
Objections to Christmas aren’t confined to the pagan elements of the holiday, as evidenced by the antagonism to jolly old Saint Nick, who lacks heathen ties altogether, though some suspect even here a hidden Babylonian connection. The main complaint is that Saint Nicholas, alias Santa Claus, detracts from the purpose of the season, which ought to be centered upon Christ. Children can name all of Santa’s reindeer starting with Rudolph, but they grow up learning nothing of the central mystery of our redemption. This is a valid concern, yet we must take care not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. There is benefit in contemplating the life of the historical “Santa Claus.”
Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in Lycia (southwestern Asia Minor) at the beginning of the fourth century. He’s remembered for his charity to the poor and has long been regarded in the West as the special patron of children, probably due to a tale about him reviving three children from the dead.
He is said to have suffered under the Diocletian persecution, been an opponent of Arianism, and been present at the Council of Nicaea. His death probably occurred at Myra in 342, and the Byzantine Emperor Justinian built a church in his honor at Constantinople in the suburb of Blacharnae during the sixth century. His feast day being December 6 explains his association with Christmas, though his reputed opposition to Arianism, a heresy rooted in the denial of the Incarnation, makes the connection quite fitting. Once understood, the life of “Santa Claus” is a model for us to follow.
Santa’s red suit is possibly derived from his eastern episcopal attire, though it was American cartoonist Thomas Nast, an anti-Catholic who let his prejudice be enshrined in his drawings, who in 1863 created the fur-trimmed suit we now associate with Santa Claus. Dutch settlers to America brought the custom of giving gifts to children on St. Nicholas’s Eve, and British settlers took over the tradition as part of their Christmas Eve celebration. The name “Santa Claus” is the Americanized version of the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” itself a modification of “Sint Nikolaas.”
Sometimes the objection is made, on the basis of the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura, that Christians ought not to celebrate Christ’s birth because nothing is said about doing so in the Bible. One might respond to this by way of the analogy with the Jewish feast of Hanukkah (also called the Feast of Dedication), an eight-day celebration (November/December) recalling the rededication of the Temple in 164 B.C. after the sanctuary had been taken over and defiled by pagans.
The only accounts of this feast’s institution are found in 1 Maccabees 4:36-59 and 2 Maccabees 10:1-8. Although these two books have always been regarded by the Church as Scripture (the Greek Septuagint being the accepted version of the Old Testament in the early Church), Protestants rejected these books as “apocryphal” during the Reformation. The only reference to Hanukkah outside of Maccabees is in John 10:22-23, where Jesus is celebrating the “Feast of the Dedication” in the Temple. The question may be asked, “If Jesus as a Jew was free to celebrate a Jewish feast whose institution isn’t found in the Protestant canon of the Old Testament, may not a Christian in the same vein celebrate the birth of his Lord, even if such a celebration is not explicitly commanded in the pages of Holy Writ?”
While observing Christmas won’t revive ancient sun worship or inspire Germanic tree-stump adoration, our present manner of celebrating Christmas isn’t beyond criticism. As has repeatedly been observed, an obsessive commercialism has swept aside much of the incarnational mystery which the season calls us to reflect upon. It isn’t the dead paganism of the past that should cause alarm, but neo-paganism as represented by secularism and the cult of materialism.
As von Balthasar observed, conflicts with evil begin and end at the manger: “And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born” (Rev. 12:4). Yet Christmas epitomizes hope, for it assures us the battle already has been won by Christ’s invasion of our world. The message of the manger is really a declaration of war by God the Father “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age” (Eph. 6:12). The history of the Church shows us one ruler of darkness after another, from Sol Invictus to the present, being crushed by the radical mystery of Bethlehem.
The apostle John writes, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world” (1 John 4:2-3). It is at the manger that the spirit of Antichrist is discerned and judged. It won’t be by the suppression of “feasting and fellowship” that we’ll triumph over the neo-paganism of modern Antichrists, but by joyously heralding the Lord Jesus Christ. Bringing the family together to pray, to read the Infancy narratives from the Gospels, and to attend church during Advent–these are our best spiritual weapons against this present darkness.
It was the Incarnation which gave our spiritual forefathers the confidence with which they defied the darkness of the first centuries. So it will be again for us. If we confront the world with the scandal of the manger, unbelievers who have walked in darkness will see a great light, and Christians will have the ruins of modern, secular deities to add to those of Sol Invictus as pagan ornaments for Christmases yet to come.”
“Today we celebrate the feast of St. Boniface (680–754), known in Church history as the Apostle to the Germans. Boniface is regarded as “probably the greatest missionary since St. Paul” for his extensive travels and successful evangelization efforts in modern-day Germany. While he is well known as a great bishop and evangelizer, Catholic legend, based on actual historical events, also holds that Boniface is the founder of the use of a Christmas tree to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child.
The story of the Christmas tree begins in England, where the very young Winfrid decided to enter a Benedictine monastery over the objections of his parents. Winfrid grew in holiness and piety but yearned to leave the monastery and bring the light of Christ to the pagan Germans just as the monks had brought the Faith to England a century earlier. Winfrid heard reports that Pope Gregory II (r. 715-731) had sent missionaries to Bavaria in 716 and decided to travel to Rome to become a missionary to the Germans. Pope Gregory was delighted at the arrival of the eager Winfrid and after a period of time commissioned him to preach the Gospel in the regions of Thuringia, Bavaria, Franconia, and Hesse. In recognition of his special missionary commission, the pope also changed Winfrid’s name to Boniface.
The newly named monk traveled to Hesse (central Germany) in 721 and “with his tireless activity, his gift for organization, and his adaptable, friendly, yet firm character” achieved great success, including the conversion of the twin chieftains Dettic and Deorulf. Boniface also established Benedictine monasteries throughout his area of evangelization, including the great monastery of Fulda in 744. News of his great achievements reached Rome, where he was recalled by Pope Gregory to provide a status report. Impressed and pleased with Boniface’s efforts, Gregory consecrated him archbishop for all Germany east of the Rhine (without a specific episcopal seat) and placed his territory under the pope’s jurisdiction. Imbued with this new authority and pontifical mandate, Boniface returned to Germany in 723.
Boniface spent the rest of his life evangelizing the areas of modern Germany and parts of the Netherlands. He also became a friend of the Frankish court and helped reform and reorganized the Church in that area. From his missionary travels, Boniface knew that in winter the inhabitants of the village of Geismar gathered around a huge old oak tree (known as the “Thunder Oak”) dedicated to the god Thor. This annual event of worship centered on sacrificing a human, usually a small child, to the pagan god. Boniface desired to convert the village by destroying the Thunder Oak, which the pagans had previously boasted the God of Boniface could not destroy, so he gathered a few companions and journeyed to Geismar.
His fellow missionaries were scared and fearful that the Germans might kill them, so they balked when they reached the outskirts of the village on Christmas Eve. Boniface steadied the nerves of his friends and as they approached the pagan gathering he said, “Here is the Thunder Oak; and here the cross of Christ shall break the hammer of the false god Thor.” Boniface and his friends arrived at the time of the sacrifice, which was interrupted by their presence. In a show of great trust in God and born from a desire to enkindle the fire of Christ in the German pagans, Boniface grabbed an axe and chopped down the Thunder Oak of mighty Thor.
The Germans were astounded. The holy bishop preached the Gospel to the people and used a little fir tree that was behind the now felled oak tree as a tool of evangelization. Pointing to it he said,
“This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace… It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.”
Awed by the destruction of the oak tree and Boniface’s preaching, the Germans were baptized.
Boniface continued his missionary efforts into old age when in 754, he left for a trip to Frisia with fifty monks. Their work was successful and many pagans agreed to receive baptism. When the appointed time came to celebrate the sacrament, a large armed crowd of pagans approached the missionaries. Knowing his time to die was at hand, Boniface discouraged his followers from fighting and said, “Cease my sons, from fighting, give up warfare for the witness of Scripture recommends that we do not give an eye for an eye but rather good for evil. Here is the long awaited day; the time of our end has now come; courage in the Lord!” The ferocious pagan attack left Boniface and his fellow companions dead and celebrated as martyrs for the Faith.
His later biographer, Othlo, recalled Boniface’s deep love for the people who he endeavored for so long to bring to Christ:
The holy bishop Boniface can call himself father of all the inhabitants of Germany, for it was he who first brought them forth in Christ with the words of his holy preaching; he strengthened them with his example; and lastly, he gave his life for them; no greater love than this can be shown.”
In the centuries that followed, the Catholic tradition of using an evergreen tree to celebrate the birth of Jesus spread throughout Germany, and German immigrants in the eighteenth century brought the custom to the New World. Although there are many stories, legends, and myths surrounding the founding of the Christmas tree, including the claim that the custom originated with Martin Luther, there is only one story rooted in a real person and a real event: Boniface, converter of the Germans, who destroyed Thor’s mighty oak.”
Love & truth,
 John Vidmar, OP, The Catholic Church Through the Ages (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), 83.
 Pope Benedict XVI Wednesday Catechesis on “Saint Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans”, on March 11, 2009in Church Fathers and Teachers – From Saint Leo the Great to Peter Lombard (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 80.
 Boniface placed Fulda under the jurisdiction of the papacy, which was a novel concept at the time. This was the same arrangement for the more well-known monastery at Cluny in the early tenth century.
 Fr. William P. Saunders “The Christmas Tree”, Straight Answers article in the Arlington Catholic Herald, available at http://www.holyspiritinteractive.net/columns/williamsaunders/straightanswers/68.asp.
 Willibald, Vita S. Bonifatii, ed. cit., 46. Quoted in, Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Catechesis on “Saint Boniface”,March 11, 2009.
 Othlo, Vita S. Bonifatii, ed. cit., lib. I, 158. Quoted in, Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Catechesis on “Saint Boniface”,March 11, 2009.
 The Washington Post – The Mini Page, “O Tannenbaum*!”, December 6, 2009, SC5. For Boniface chopping the oak tree see Fr. John Laux, Church History – A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 1989), 221 & Warren H. Carroll, The Building of Christendom (Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 1987), 276.
“All was quiet and still with that quiet stillness that slows one’s step almost without him noticing. Beneath the dark boughs of the forest, the crisp flakes of the newly fallen snow caught and crystalized the silver moonlight. Brother Laurentius, wandering through this melancholic solemnity, observed amid the encircling white and diamond a deep ruby warmth. Stooping, the Cathusian(1)[Brother Laurentius (apocryphal); Carthusian monk Conradus, 1580s, Trier, manuscript anthology] lifted the blooming rose to a silver shaft of light. How strange to find such a flower nestled amid the Christmas snowfall. Still contemplating the blossom, the monk trudged back to the convent. Finding a crystal vase, he placed the rose beneath the gentle candlelight of Mary’s altar.
Brother Laurentius’s(1) midnight discovery, according to tradition, inspired the meditative Advent and Christmastide hymn, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”).
From the beginning, “Lo, How a Rose” was a sort of gentle call to a Marian contemplation. The Church had long seen the Blessed Virgin prefigured in the words of the Song of Songs: “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys” (Song 2:1). The first version, which appeared in a German hymnal in 1599, sang of Mary as the rose that “has brought forth a floweret,” Christ. The verse captures the mystique of Mary’s role in the Incarnation of the Son of God. The perfect flower of her holiness provided the fitting stem upon which to form the humanity of the perfect man. Like Br. Laurentius gazing on the color of the rose amid the darkness of night, the listener contemplates the sinless beauty of the Virgin Mother of God amid the pallor of fallen world.
The current version of the hymn, with the powerful harmonies composed by Michael Praetorius in 1609, focuses more on that floweret, Christ:
This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
We now see Christ as the rose fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isa 11:1). The grace and truth of the Christ child, like the sweet fragrance of a rose, permeates the rotten decay of our fallen world and makes all things fresh. The gentle light of the newborn king’s face, like the red rose in the field of white, shines out a glorious splendor that will blaze forth on the Mountain of the Transfiguration, obliterate the darkness of the grave in the light of the Resurrection, and flow to every corner of the earth through the faces of his friends who have seen this light.
In this focus on Christ the rose, the hymn retains its Marian aspect. Now, we join the Virgin Mother in her undiluted contemplation of her Son. The goal of the hymn, the purpose, is to join our eyes to those of Mary gazing upon this “flow’ret bright”: “With Mary we behold it.”
Mary is the contemplative par excellence. In her maternal care, we hear several times how she pondered in her heart the mystery of her divine Son (cf. Lk 1:29; 2:18, 51). When we pray the Rosary, we join in Mary’s contemplation, gazing with her into the inexhaustible mystery of her Son.
“Lo, How a Rose” invites us to a similar contemplation. We wonder at “How Christ, the Lord of Glory, / Was born on earth this night.” With Mary we ponder the baby in the crib, knowing that he is “True man, yet very God” and that “From sin and death He saves us.”
Praetorius’s musical arrangement aids this contemplation. The lyrics move slowly and gently through the harmonies, beckoning to us to slow down, to listen, to behold. The chords rise and fall, grow and subside with all the intensity and subtlety of contemplation, one moment powerful, the next moment gentle, yet always moving with a heavenly steadiness.
In this Christmas contemplation, we see ever more clearly what Mary saw and what her motherhood shows:
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
Christ the flower came breathing forth the fragrance of divine love. He sprung from Mary’s “tender stem” to reveal the love of God, to manifest in visible form the heights and depths of God’s love. “To show God’s love aright,” God’s only Son became the Son of Man, born our brother through Mary, that we might be born his brothers through grace, becoming sons of God.
With Mary, then, we behold afresh the flowering of grace and new life in the Christ Child.
Love & the budding joy only He can give,
(1) O’Sullivan, J. (2008). There Is a Rose Come Forth. The Furrow, 59(4), 242-245. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/27665728
-Matteo di Giovanni, a tempera on panel painting by Matteo di Giovanni, produced between 1450 and 1500 possibly in 1468, 1478, or 1488) probably in Siena. It was commissioned by Alfonso II of Naples, then living in Siena as part of the campaign against the Medici. It was probably produced to commemorate the inhabitants of Otranto killed by the Ottomans in 1480 whose relics were moved into the church of Santa Caterina at Formiello at Alfonso’s request – the same church also originally housed the painting. It is now in the National Museum of Capodimonte. Please click on the image for greater detail.
“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”” -Mt 2:16-18
Jewish historian Josephus mentions in his Antiquities of the Jews (c. AD 94), which records many of Herod’s misdeeds, including the murder of three of his own sons
The first non-Christian reference to the massacre is recorded four centuries later by Macrobius (c. 395–423), who writes in his Saturnalia:
“When he [Emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered killed, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.”
Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay”?
Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”
The commemoration of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyrs, if unknowingly so, first appears as a feast of the Western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485 AD. The earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January: Prudentius mentions the Innocents in his hymn on the Epiphany. Pope St Leo the Great in his homilies on the Epiphany speaks of the Innocents. Fulgentius of Ruspe (6th century AD) gives a homily De Epiphania, deque Innocentum nece et muneribus magorum (“On Epiphany, and on the murder of the Innocents and the gifts of the Magi”).
“Matthew 2:12 tells us that the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod the Great after visiting Jesus and his family, and so they departed for their country by another way. Herod, upon realizing their failure to report to him, subsequently ordered all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be executed (Matt. 2:16). Atheist C.J. Werleman wrote of this story:
[T]here is no record of King Herod or any Roman ruler ever giving such an infanticidal statute. In fact, the ancient historian Josephus, who extensively recorded Herod’s crimes, does not mention this baby murdering, which would undoubtedly have been Herod’s greatest crime by far.
Now, it is true that Matthew did not intend to write a literal history of Jesus’ birth. The evangelist uses various narrative devices in order to underscore the reality of Jesus being the “new Moses.” On that view, one of those devices could be the creation of a story that parallels the slaughter of the Hebrew infants from which Moses was spared (Exod. 1:22).
But this approach to Scripture often evinces a “hermeneutic of suspicion” and begins with an assumption that denies not just the miraculous but also the providential. From this perspective, real historical events can’t “rhyme” with one another in order to demonstrate God’s sovereignty over time and space. Any such “marvelous coincidences” have to be explained as the inventions of a rather mundane author who is just riffing on older source material.
The evidence does not, however, point to the Gospels being such purely allegorical accounts. Matthew’s narrative diverges significantly from Moses’ birth story. For example, Jesus is raised by his mother instead of in Herod’s court and Moses flees as an adult from Egypt whereas Jesus flees as a child to Egypt. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI wrote,
What Matthew and Luke set out to do each in his own way, was not to tell “stories” but to write history, real history that had actually happened, admittedly interpreted and understood in the context of the word of God. Hence the aim 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 infancy narratives are interpreted history, condensed and written down in accordance with the interpretation.
But what about the argument from silence that atheists like Werleman make? If this massacre really did happen, then why didn’t any other author—biblical or non-biblical—record it?
First, Mark and John do not discuss any of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, so we wouldn’t expect them to talk about the slaughter of the innocents. Second, Luke and Matthew’s accounts are complementary, not redundant, and so it isn’t surprising that there are details unique to each account be it Matthew’s description of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents or Luke’s description of Caesar Augustus’ enrollment of the population in what later authors describe as a “census” (Luke 2:1).
Such an act of cruelty perfectly corresponds with Herod’s paranoid and merciless character, which bolsters the argument for its historicity. Josephus records that Herod was quick to execute anyone he perceived to threaten his rule, including his wife and children (Antiquities 15.7.5–6 and 16.11.7). Two Jewish scholars have made the case that Herod suffered from “Paranoid Personality Disorder,” and Caesar Augustus even said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.
In addition, first-century Bethlehem was a small village that would have included, at most, a dozen males under the age of two. Josephus, if he even knew about the massacre, probably did not think an isolated event like the killings at Bethlehem needed to be recorded, especially since infanticide in the Roman Empire was not a moral abomination as it is in our modern Western world.
Herod’s massacre would also not have been the first historical event Josephus failed to record.
We know from Suetonius and from the book of Acts that the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49, but neither Josephus nor the second century Roman historian Tacitus record this event (Acts 18). Josephus also failed to record Pontius Pilate’s decision to install blasphemous golden shields in Jerusalem, which drove the Jews to petition the emperor for their removal. The Alexandrian philosopher Philo was the only person to record this event.
Sometimes historians choose not to record an event, and their reasons cannot always be determined. In the nineteenth century Pope Leo XIII noted the double standard in critics for whom “a profane book or ancient document is accepted without hesitation, whilst the Scripture, if they only find in it a suspicion of error, is set down with the slightest possible discussion as quite untrustworthy” (Providentissimus Deus, 20).
We should call out this double standard when critics demand that every event recorded in Scripture, including the massacre of the Holy Innocents, be corroborated in other non-biblical accounts before they can be considered to be historical.”
-Isenheim altar piece, 2nd view, Mathias Grünewald, 1512-1516, Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, in France, painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar, which specialized in hospital work. The Antonine monks of the monastery were noted for their care of plague sufferers as well as their treatment of skin diseases, such as ergotism, aka St Anthony’s Fire. Ergotism sufferers endure spasms especially of the hands, legs, and feet. They also endure a dry gangrene. It is the result of fungus on cereal grains, which can still occur today; and, more recently, through ergoline-based drugs. The image of the crucified Christ is pitted with plague-type sores, showing patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions. The veracity of the work’s depictions of medical conditions was unusual in the history of European art. Please click on the image for greater detail.
“”Christ our God to earth descendeth.” The Incarnation establishes a new presence of God among us. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the Father, comes to us as a little babe, wherein the “the fullness of God dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). On the one hand, God is already present everywhere, isn’t He? And on the other, the seraphim and cherubim do not “veil their faces to the presence” just everywhere. So what exactly is this new presence among us that evokes our “fear and trembling”?
Saint Thomas Aquinas describes God’s presence among creatures in a variety of ways (ST I, q. 8, a. 3). First, He is omnipresent by His essence, presence, and power. God’s creative act, His knowledge of creatures, and His governance of the world touch all things, and because of this connection, God is present there. Without God’s presence in these ways, creatures would cease to exist. From the highest of the blessed in heaven to the lowest and most mundane dust of the earth, things exist only because God is willing to be close to us. Beyond this universal presence, God can make Himself present in special ways as well. To intellectual creatures, God can give Himself as an object of our knowing and loving. That is to say, by pouring faith and charity into our hearts, God makes Himself present in us, dwelling in us as in a temple. 1 Cor 6:19.
There is another kind of presence of God, to which the angels veil their faces in homage and adoration. This presence is not merely by causation, or even the sublime gift of divine indwelling. The personal being of the Son unites to Himself a human nature, so that the man Jesus does not just possess grace to an eminent degree; rather, Jesus is truly God. The King of kings and Lord of lords Himself comes to us, taking on a human nature. The infant in the manger is not merely a sign of God’s presence. Jesus is God, the Incarnate Word.”
-Wrenboys on Wren Day in Dingle, Ireland, please click on the image for greater detail
The wren, oh the wren; he’s the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day he got caught in the furze,
So it’s up with the kettle and it’s down with the pan,
Won’t you give us a penny for to bury the wren?
Well it’s Christmas time; that’s why we’re here,
Please be good enough to give us an ear,
For we’ll sing and we’ll dance if youse give us a chance,
And we won’t be comin’ back for another whole year!
We’ll play Kerry polkas; they’re real hot stuff,
We’ll play the Mason’s Apron and the Pinch of Snuff,
Jon Maroney’s jig and the Donegal reel,
Music made to put a spring in your heel!
If there’s a drink in the house, would it make itself known,
Before I sing a song called “The Banks of the Lowne”,
A drink with lubri-mication in it,
For me poor dry throat and I’ll sing like a linnet!
Oh please give us something for the little bird’s wake,
A big lump of pudding or some Christmas cake,
A fist full o’ goose and a hot cup o’ tay (Tea),
And then we’ll all be goin’ on our way!
The wren, oh the wren; he’s the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day he got caught in the furze,
So it’s up with the kettle and it’s down with the pan,
Won’t you give us a penny for to bury the wren?
December 26 is one of nine official public holidays in Ireland, in English, Wren Day. This name alludes to several legends, including those found in Irish mythology, linking episodes in the life of Jesus to the wren. People dress up in old clothes, wear straw hats and travel from door to door with fake wrens (previously real wrens were killed) and they dance, sing and play music.
Depending on which region of the country, they are called “wrenboys” and mummers. A Mummer’s Festival is held at this time every year in the village of New Inn, County Galway, and Dingle in County Kerry. Mumming is also a big tradition in County Fermanagh in Ulster. Saint Stephen’s Day is a popular day for visiting family members and going to the theatre to see a pantomime. In most of Ulster in the north of Ireland, the day is usually known as Boxing Day, especially in Northern Ireland and County Donegal.
Irish further appended St Stephen’s Day with the hunting of wren. At some point during the Feast of St. Stephen, the children from each family would find a wren and chase it until it was captured or died from exhaustion. After “going on the wren,” the children would tie the dead bird to the end of a pole or put it in a cage and parade around town singing.
Each group would stop at homes around the neighborhood, show their bird and collect some money. At the end of the day, the money the town’s children gathered was pooled and used to host a huge city-wide dance.
There are two tales why the wren became the unfortunate victim of the day. In one version, St. Stephen had all but eluded his capture when a singing wren betrayed his hiding place. The other explanation is that during the Viking raids on the Emerald Island in the eighth century, wrens betrayed the Irish soldiers’ location and foiled a potential ambush.
-Cardinal Miloslav Vlk with the skull of Saint Wenceslaus during a procession on September 28, 2006, please click on the image for greater detail
“Good King Wenceslas” is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints which are warmed by the saint’s holiness, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935). The name Wenceslas is a Latinised version of the old Czech language “Venceslav”.
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
“Today is known as Boxing Day in England, where the wealthy would traditionally give gifts to their servants and to the less fortunate. Interestingly enough, there is a link between this secular commemoration, today’s liturgical feast of Saint Stephen, and the message of the mid-nineteenth century English carol, Good King Wenceslaus. While both St. Stephen and Wenceslaus wore the martyr’s crown, they were also known for their service to the poor, which they undertook for the sake of Christ. Their mutual witness shows us how the mystery of Christmas can transform us into loving disciples of the newborn Savior.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we find Stephen, a young man “full of grace and power” who “did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). As one of the first deacons, he was committed to serving the poor and widows, so that the Apostles could freely fulfill their preaching mission. He defended the Faith against those who were trying to silence the followers of Christ, eventually succumbing to death by stoning. We celebrate him as the first martyr on the day after Christmas, because he reminds us of the ultimate mission of the newborn savior, who came to earth in order to die for our sins.
With St. Stephen as his example, it was quite fitting that “Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the feast of Stephen.” Who was this good “King Wenceslaus”? Wenceslaus I—more precisely, the Duke of Bohemia—was born around 907. His path to holiness was inspired by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, who was one of the first to be baptized in Bohemia. He succeeded his father as duke when he was only a teenager, and was known for his devotion and virtue. Like Stephen, Wenceslaus assisted the poor with alms as a young man. In 935, he was killed by his brother, who resented Wenceslaus’ allegiance to both the Church and the German king. Saint Wenceslaus has been venerated as a martyr ever since his death.
It is the charity of St. Wenceslaus that is the major theme of the carol that bears his name, but we must carefully read each verse in order to unlock this message. We find the first clue at the end of verse 1: “When a poor man came in sight gath’ring winter fuel.” In verse 3, Wenceslaus and his page feed this poor man and provide him with firewood for the wintry night. By verse 4, the page is spent, unable to go further due to the cold. Wenceslaus commands him to follow in his steps, as “Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.” The presence of the saint radiates the love of Christ in the midst of the winter’s cold. It was Christ Whom Wenceslaus proclaimed, for His coming into the world scatters the darkness and warms the hardened hearts of sinners. All of us, regardless of status, must serve Christ in the poor and helpless, for in doing so, we proclaim the good news of salvation with the hope of eternal life. The final words of the carol teach such a lesson:
“Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.”
Saint Wenceslaus lived this lesson eminently, humbling himself from his throne to help the poor and downtrodden.
Christmastime can prompt us to help those who are needy, yet such sentiments for good deeds should not be a mere formality or come by way of social obligation. Rather, they must be rooted in a love for the Infant lying in the manger. Christ’s lowly birth shows us our own poverty and weakness, as He descended among us to raise us out of the poverty of sin. Saints Stephen and Wenceslaus are venerated as martyrs, yet their witness includes a love for Christ in the poor, which preceded their ultimate sacrifice for Him. Their example inspires us to bring the love of the newborn Christ to all those we encounter, both at Christmas and throughout the whole year.”
-Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt, 1630, Oil on panel, 58 cm × 46 cm (23 in × 18 in) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands, please click on the image for greater detail.
-by Br John Bernard Church, OP, English Province
“At the centre of Rembrandt’s moving portrait we have the wizened face of the prophet Jeremiah. His look is one of despair, mourning the destruction of the city behind him. Sitting alone, the lacklustre resignation of his posture seems ill-fitting for one dressed in such resplendent robes, and the array of silverware at his side evidently provides little comfort. Our immediate impression is of a man completely at a loss, whose material comforts and earthly grandeur seem out of place in the midst of such tragedy.
The blurry background of the burning Temple in Jerusalem is almost dreamlike, set against the sharp detail of the prophet’s haggard expression. Perhaps even he, who has spent his life prophesying this moment, can hardly believe it has happened. He said this time would come, that the Babylonians would destroy the Temple: “Take warning, O Jerusalem”. Yet he was met with rejection: “See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen” (Jer 6:8-10). This is a depiction of a prophet lamenting: he shows no satisfaction in his vindication, rather the grieving figure ponders what more he could have done.
“Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words” (Jer 6:19).
But I don’t think Rembrandt really does depict a prophet in despair. One mourning, lamenting, grieving certainly, but not despair. To despair is to give up, to lack any hope, and this prophet does not lack hope.
Jeremiah features rarely in the Advent liturgies, where pride of place among the prophets is given to Isaiah. His doleful lamentations are more fittingly read in Lent: describing himself as the “gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer 11:19), his words point us forward to the Passion.
However, this week we are given Jeremiah’s sole messianic prophecy, a rare glimmer of light amidst his warnings of judgment and destruction: at some future, unspecified time, the Lord will raise up a righteous branch for David, “who shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5).
This is the hope that carries the prophet. He need not despair, for even as the Temple in Jerusalem burns, he knows a time of justice and peace is coming: the Temple that will be raised up on the third day.
In the eyes of Rembrandt, this interior hope of the prophet takes on a physical form. In the middle of the painting, dimly lit and easily missed next to the glimmer of jewels, is a volume of the Torah. A later editor has helpfully scrawled ‘Bibel’ on it in cased we missed the point. Jeremiah leans heavily on the book, bent beneath his weight: while the earthly wealth may grab our attention, the Lord’s covenant with His people contained in the Torah is what holds this painting together. It is the hope that sustains the prophet.
Advent for us too is about a hope that lives within us taking on a physical form. The form of a baby no less, as we wait patiently for our Incarnate Lord.
Jeremiah’s name in Hebrew means ‘The Lord will restore’: while the nearby destruction may give him the appearance of despair, his hope in the Lord remains steadfast. So too may we remain steadfast in hope for the coming of our Saviour, looking to Jeremiah just as the Letter of St James reminds us: “Brethren, take as an example of suffering and patience the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord” (James 5:10).”
-Fra Filippo Lippi, Mystical Nativity or The Adoration in the Forest, c. 1459. Oil on a poplar panel, and the painted surface measures 127 x 116 cm, with the panel being 129.5 x 118.5 cm, originally an altarpiece for the Magi Chapel in the new Palazzo Medici in Florence, it is now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, with a copy by another artist now hanging in the chapel. Please click on the image for greater detail.
-by Br Daniel Benedict Rowlands, OP, English Province
“All three comings of Christ described by St Bernard seem to be represented in this painting, but especially the intermediate coming of Christ to the individual soul: in the shadowy forest of the human heart, shrouded in the gloom of sin, it remains within our capability to clear a small glade into which Christ may come to dwell.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the scene before us is nothing more than a variation on a traditional nativity, with the two protagonists abstracted from their familiar setting, and placed instead in a rather forbidding forest. Indeed, the Adoration of the Christ Child motif, in which an intense focus is placed on the blessed Mother’s adoration of her son, began to appear following the mystic St Bridget of Sweden’s vision of the nativity in the 14th century. Nevertheless, I suggest that we need not wait until Christmas to enjoy this painting, for there is much that commends it as apt stimulus for Advent meditation.
The Office of Readings on the Thursday of the first week of Advent features the following passage in which St Bernard speaks of the threefold coming of Christ:
“In the first coming the Lord was seen on earth and lived among men… In His last coming all flesh shall see the salvation of our God, and they shall look on Him whom they have pierced. The other coming is hidden. In it, only the chosen see Him within themselves… Listen to Christ Himself, If a man loves Me he will keep My words, and My Father will love Him, and We will come to him… Where, then, are they to be kept? Without any doubt they are to be kept in the heart… Let it pierce deep into your inmost soul and penetrate your feelings and actions… If you keep the word of God in this way without a doubt you will be kept by It.”
I think this painting can naturally be read as depicting the intermediate coming described by St Bernard. In the shadowy, stony forest of the human heart, shrouded in the gloom of sin, it remains within our capability to clear a small glade into which Christ may come to dwell with us. Lippi’s depiction of the forest is probably based on the woods of Camaldoli, which makes St Romuald – the founder of the Camaldolese Order – the likely identity of the monk in the background. Cutting down trees for timber was the monks’ primary source of manual labour, so the fusion of prayer and work enjoined by the Rule of St Benedict seems to take on a special significance here: the lofty pines of pride are what stand most in need of felling. Fra Lippi is thoughtful enough to offer us an axe with which we too may take up this work: we seem to be invited to imitate the Israelites who undertook the humble task of sourcing the cedar for Solomon’s temple. As for overlaying the sanctuary with pure gold, we find that work already done – quite literally thanks to the artist – in the person of our Lady, the Domus Aurea (House of Gold) as she is called in the Litany (cf. 1 Kings 5-6).
Within this “interior forest” in which time and space are transcended, the first and final comings are also allusively juxtaposed. I have no qualms putting into the mouth of a youthful John the Baptist, who stands next to the newborn Christ child, the words of his later proclamation: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mat. 3:10). In the same act by which we prepare ourselves to contemplate the great mystery of the incarnation and so bring Christ to birth within us, we concomitantly prepare ourselves to be judged by Him.
Looking at this Florentine Renaissance masterpiece with an eye to eschatology, I can’t help but call to mind the work of another of the city’s masters, namely Dante and the evocative opening tercet of the Inferno: “Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path”. Bewildered by ignorance and sin, the pilgrim does not, like Dante, negotiate a bestial trinity of vices (embodied by the leopard, lion, and wolf) with only the assistance of natural reason (represented by Virgil). Rather, having prepared the garden of the soul, Lippi’s contemplative has been graced with the condescension of the Logos Himself, and through Him, now experiences a foretaste of participation in the Trinitarian life itself. Manifestations of the Trinity are certainly not a common theme in Advent art, whether it be of incarnational or eschatological emphasis. St Bernard’s intermediate coming of Christ to the soul, however, does provide a fitting context in which the the veil of human nature assumed by the second person of the Trinity may indeed take on a particularly striking transparency. Perhaps, if I am granted some interpretative licence, Lippi is alluding to this with the exquisitely diaphanous drapery that clothes the lower half of the Divine Infant.
I will end with a prayer of praise contained in the Advent Lyrics – a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry that I mention in an upcoming post – which also takes up this theme of recognising the mystery of the incarnation as the common work of the whole Godhead:
“O beautiful, plenteous in honours,
high and holy, heavenly Trinity
blessed far abroad across the spacious plains,
Whom, by right, speech-bearers,
wretched earth-dwellers, should supremely praise
with all their power, now God, true to His pledge,
has revealed a Saviour to us, that we may know Him.”
Love & the joy only He can bring,
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP