“On the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XII’s consecration of the human race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, John Paul II not only renewed his predecessor’s call for all to consecrate themselves to Christ, but also connected that devotion in a special way to the New Evangelization. From their contemplation of the pierced heart of the Redeemer, he said, Christians come away with a renewed sense of mission.
What, then, can evangelists learn from the Sacred Heart of Jesus? As Pius XII noted in his encyclical letter on the topic, devotion to the Sacred Heart constitutes, “so far as practice is concerned, a perfect profession of the Christian religion” (Haurietis Aquas 106). So, in a way, the evangelist can say, “Everything I really need to know, I learned from devotion to the Sacred Heart.”
In a more specific sense, perhaps the most important thing the evangelist can learn from the Sacred Heart is the virtue of meekness. Christ himself said, in his only direct reference to his heart, “Learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly of heart.” St. Peter later added, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). So it is in gentleness that the evangelist’s heart is most like the heart of Jesus.
What is gentleness? The Greek word translated as “gentleness” is also sometimes translated as “meekness” or “mildness.” For most English-speakers, though, “gentleness” is probably the most frequently used of those terms, and we hear it in a variety of contexts.
Suppose you bring a new baby home from the hospital to meet his siblings. You carefully situate him with his four-year-old sister, and you tell her, “Now, be gentle with him.”
Or suppose your six-year-old son wants to carry your grandfather’s pocket watch over to the window for a better look. You hand it to him with a warning: “Be gentle with it!”
Or perhaps you’ve just worked hard on an elaborate meal for your husband. As you begin, you say, “Tell me what you really think—but be gentle with me.”
We could imagine more scenarios, but perhaps these are enough to notice a certain commonality. Each of these cases features a difference in power or strength. The four-year-old is more powerful, stronger, even bigger than the baby, just as the six-year-old is with respect to the watch. The husband, in the third case, is more powerful than the wife, in the sense that his evaluation of her meal, and especially the way in which he communicates it, has the potential to build her up or to tear her down.
In each of these cases, the stronger must take special pains to ensure that his strength does not endanger the other. He must recognize the vulnerabilities of the other and the ways in which his strength can threaten those weaknesses, even when he bears no malice to the other. The gentle person, then, is one who protects the littleness and weakness of the other from the danger implied by his own bigness and power.
This definition of gentleness, however, fails to mention the one feature that is central to most traditional accounts. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, teaches that meekness “moderates anger according to right reason” (Summa Theologica II:II:157). This emphasis on anger is common in the tradition, beginning as early as Aristotle.
I think a deep insight into anger ties these two definitions together. Aristotle, for example, points out that anger is a kind of pleasant emotion, because it leaves us feeling somehow superior to the object of our passion. If anger is, as Aristotle and St. Thomas believed, an apprehension of another as committing an unjust and undeserved offense against oneself, then to experience it is to see oneself in the right and the object of one’s anger as in the wrong.
And that confers a kind of advantage or relative strength over the offended party: standing on the moral high ground, he enjoys at least a moral superiority to the offender. That superiority can be used in such a way that the vulnerabilities of the offender are protected—or in such a way that they are threatened.
The traditional emphasis on restraint of anger as the defining characteristic of gentleness has a great deal of appeal. Anger, alienation, forgiveness, and reconciliation are at the heart of the moral life; learning to put these emotions and choices in the proper order is essential to any decent life with others. So the value of the virtue of gentleness first shines most brightly precisely in this arena.
But despite the fact that anger and its restraint play such important roles in the relationships among humans and between God and humanity, the moderation of anger does not exhaust the possibilities of gentleness, as our first examples above showed. We must not overlook the fact that gentleness is also called for in many contexts where anger is not the primary factor.
This larger reach of gentleness is not hard to see in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. What greater power differential could there be than that between the Word of God Incarnate, through whom all that exists came into being, and poor creatures like us? Yet the gospel tells us that he would not “break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick” (Matt. 12:20). Because his heart is meek, he tells us, his “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light” (11:30)—a burden suited to our weakness and not modeled after his strength.
Peter, as we noted before, urges Christians to imitate the gentleness of Jesus’ Sacred Heart precisely in their role as evangelists. “Always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within you,” he teaches, “with gentleness and reverence.” Why does the evangelist need gentleness?
Evangelism in Peter’s day required gentleness first because Christians suffered great persecution. The very real possibility of abuse and mistreatment provided the context for this evangelistic admonition. And since innocent Christians could only experience such persecution as the infliction of undeserved harms, their anger would inevitably require shaping and restraining so that it would serve the good of their enemies. In the same way, Christ had allowed his heart to be pierced so that the fountain of his mercy could flow to the worst of his persecutors.
Most of us will not suffer such tribulation. But we can, nonetheless, be treated in unjust ways that arouse our anger. When that mistreatment comes to us because of our commitment to the truth that is Jesus, it is especially important that gentleness restrains our anger and leads us to the forgiveness and kindness we ourselves have already found in the Sacred Heart. Failing to respond gently will not only mean falling short of Jesus’ call to learn of his meek and lowly heart; it will also undercut our evangelistic efforts. How convincing can our proclamation of the truth be if we refuse to embody it in our actions?
Evangelists need gentleness for another reason. Knowledge of the truth is itself a kind of advantage that makes its possessor stronger. Consider, for example, the computer expert. If he intends to help the inexperienced user see the truths about computing, then he has to pursue gentleness, since the demoralization he could otherwise cause is an obstacle to learning.
How much more does the theological, moral, or apologetic “expert” pose a kind of threat to the relatively unlearned! These truths strike much more closely to the heart of a person’s self-understanding. A rough, ungentle approach to learners’ instruction can leave those already committed in some way to these truths feeling not just embarrassed, but positively foolish, as though they do not even understand their own deepest commitments. Such learners are likely to abandon the pursuit of deeper understanding, seeing it at best as an irrelevancy and at worst as a calculated attempt at the evangelist’s self-aggrandizement.
A lack of gentleness threatens to undermine the evangelist’s efforts in another way, too. Since evangelists ultimately strive to bring others to an encounter with Christ that results in conversion of life, the truths they teach touch the center of their hearers’ ways of life. Those who are not already committed to these truths quite reasonably perceive them as a threat to their self-identity. That sense of danger prompts almost impenetrable defenses. And those defenses usually cannot be forced in a frontal assault. Not pyrotechnics, but gentleness wins the day. As the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand noted, “If spoken by the meek, the word of truth which like a sword, severs soul and body, subtly insinuates itself like a breath of love into the innermost recesses of the soul.”
Devotion to the Sacred Heart contains the key to cultivating this necessary gentleness. Gentleness comes from growing in union with the heart of Jesus, as we love, trust, and imitate Him more. Von Hildebrand sees this point well, and his insight captures the true power of gentleness: “For the meek is reserved true victory over the world, because it is not they themselves who conquer, but Christ in them and through them.”
Sacred Heart of Jesus, make our hearts like unto Thine.”
“There is a magnetism about Jesus Christ. Even those who deny his divinity—deny the thing that Christians claim makes him important and influential in the first place—seem to seek any reason to be able to recognize him as important or influential, stopping short of acknowledging his divinity. People seem reluctant to abandon him or throw him by the wayside. They try to downplay his importance, but they know he is important. So they must find some other reason to admire him. We’ve all heard it many times before: Jesus was just a great moral teacher, someone who told us all to be nice to each other, and we can all learn from his example of niceness.
There are many people around the world who profess no religious belief in Jesus. “He was a great moral teacher,” they say, or “We can follow his example of togetherness and acceptance of everyone.” But they strenuously deny that he was God—in other words, they deny that he was what he claimed to be.
The problem is, if you deny his divinity, you run into a pretty thorny problem. This is a man who clearly claimed divinity for himself (see Luke 22:69; John 10:30, 10:38, 14:7-10). This is a man who, when faced with torture and execution, doubled down and assured his inquisitors that yes, in fact, he is the Son of God (see. Luke 22:70). Is it possible to deny this claim and still admire the man? If he is not God, is it possible to still look up to someone who claims such a thing for himself?
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When it comes down to it, there are only three options: 1) he was who he said he was; 2) he was out of his mind; 3) he was knowingly lying. This argument has been made before, most famously by C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity, and has been called the trilemma. How are we to interpret Jesus’ claims to be divine, and what implications does that have?
Logically considered, there are a finite number of possibilities, all of which are mutually exclusive and one of which must be true. What Lewis’s trilemma does is work through the possibilities and make a case for which one makes the most sense to believe.
The trilemma is not really an airtight argument for the divinity of Jesus. It does not demonstrate the truth of this claim by appealing to any authority, or by logically and systematically laying out the reasons for believing Jesus was God. It is more like an argument in favor of believing the divinity of Jesus. Pascal’s Wager comes to mind: while not a proof for the existence of God, it is a demonstration of the reasonableness of such faith. Lewis’s trilemma is a sort of deductive demonstration: there are three options, two of which do not make sense, so the correct answer must be the third. The question is: is he Lord, lunatic, or liar?
While this is typically called the trilemma, some have presented a fourth option: legend. Here we consider the possibility that the Bible is not historically reliable, so we cannot know for sure that Jesus (if he really even existed) ever actually claimed to be God, so the accounts would be simply legendary. This option is usually not included in the conversation, as it sort of defeats the purpose and undermines the question. We could easily end any historical conversation by saying, “Perhaps the matter in question never happened.” Think about it: one could ask whether or not the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were morally justifiable and be shut down by someone saying, “It never happened, so the question is irrelevant.” This contributes nothing to the conversation. As for Jesus’ historical existence, the evidence is far too great to deny it. We must accept the fact that he claimed to be God and approach the question from there.
No one can lay out the argument as well as Lewis himself, so here is the pertinent excerpt from Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
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The argument was also put forward in a somewhat different context by St. Thomas Aquinas more than seven hundred years before Lewis. In Lectura super Ioannem, in the prologue to the commentary on the Gospel of John, Aquinas says John’s reason for writing his Gospel was that, “after the other Evangelists had written their Gospels, heresies had arisen concerning the divinity of Christ, to the effect that Christ was purely and simply a man, as Ebion and Cerinthus falsely taught. And so John the Evangelist, who had drawn the truth about the divinity of the Word from the very fountainhead of the divine breast, wrote this Gospel at the request of the faithful. And in it he gives us the doctrine of the divinity of Christ and refutes all heresies.”
So is the speaker a lunatic? Is he deranged, without a grip on reality? If that’s the case, no one should be taking lessons on ethics (or anything else, for that matter) from this person. Someone without a firm grasp of reality should not be looked up to for any kind of advice and could not be considered a great moral teacher.
So is the speaker a liar? And if so, does it matter? Can’t we still trust that his moral teachings are sound? Frankly, no. Someone who would intentionally lie about being God is not someone who should be trusted to give ethical advice and guidance. This person would be a narcissist in the most technical, clinical sense; a selfish, self-serving individual, lacking in compassion. Not exactly the resume of a great ethical teacher.
It would seem that third remaining option must be true: Jesus is Lord.”
“Why do Catholics today celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus? After all, we don’t have feast days dedicated to any other organs of Jesus’ body. There’s no “Solemnity of the Arm of Jesus,” for instance, to honor His baptisms and Healings. So why a feast day for His Heart?
Biblically, the heart is “our hidden center.” Scripture refers to the heart more than a thousand times, often, as the Catechism (CCC) notes, in the context of prayer (2562-63). The greatest commandment of the Law is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5; Mark 12:30). In speaking of the Sacred Heart, then, we’re referring to the person of Jesus, to his humanity, and to his love for the Father and for us, what the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) calls his “infinite divine-human love for the Father and for his brothers.” In a special way, the image of the Sacred Heart captures the moment in which that love was poured out for us on the cross, when a soldier pierced the side of Christ, and blood and water flowed out (John 19:34).
As the CDW notes, we find devotion to the Sacred Heart throughout the Middle Ages, but it goes from being a personal devotion to a liturgical feast in no small part in response to the heresy of Jansenism. In the words of Pope Pius XI, “the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was instituted at a time when men were oppressed by the sad and gloomy severity of Jansenism, which had made their hearts grow cold, and shut them out from the love of God and the hope of salvation.”
So what was the Jansenist heresy, and how was the Sacred Heart an answer to it?
Although the heresy of Jansenism is sometimes unfairly oversimplified, there were three particular features of the heresy that (inadvertently) produced disastrous effects. The first was a double predestination: that God destined some for heaven and others for hell, irrespective of merits. As Leszek Kołakowski traces in his book God Owes Us Nothing, Jansenist theology argued that God gives some people the graces necessary for salvation and withholds them from others (pp. 31-35). The result of this idea would be that some people are going to hell, and there’s literally nothing they can do about it. They aren’t saved—not because they refuse God’s overtures, but simply because God doesn’t want to save them.
The second feature regarded imperfect contrition, sometimes known as attrition. In simple terms: If I turn away from my sin out of fear of hell (rather than out of love of God), is that good enough to be forgiven? The Catechism (1453) now clarifies: by itself, “imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins”; however, imperfect contrition is sufficient to receive absolution through the sacrament of Penance, since imperfect contrition can be perfected through the sacramental graces flowing from the confessional. But the Jansenists taught the opposite: that even for a valid sacramental confession, a penitent needed perfect contrition. Worse, Jansenist priests “routinely withheld absolution, in the belief that few penitents demonstrated sufficient precision and adequate contrition.”
Third, because so few people could count on perfect contrition, Jansenists warned against receiving Communion frequently, in a misguided attempt to avoid the scandal of unworthy reception.
What was the combined effect of these three teachings? That ordinary Catholics doubted God’s love for them; doubted whether they were (or could be) forgiven, even after going to confession; and stayed away from the Body and Blood of Christ in Communion out of fear, thereby depriving themselves of sacramental graces. The resulting vision of God was thereby distorted. As Pius XI would later recount, “God was not to be loved as a father but rather to be feared as an implacable judge.”
This is an important insight, because it gets to the heart of the matter. It’s not just that Jansenism got the details of predestination or contrition or sacramental reception wrong. It’s that Jansenism got God wrong, in a fundamental way that many of us still get him wrong today.
Perhaps it is only fitting, then, that it was God himself who set things straight. While multiple seventeenth- and eighteenth-century popes vainly tried to quash Jansenism, Jesus intervened in an unexpected way: through a series of apparitions to a French nun named Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). In the last and most famous of these apparitions, Jesus showed her His Heart and said:
“Behold the heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify Its love; and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for me in this sacrament of love.”
Theologically, this is the corrective Jansenism needed. Jesus did not deny any of what Jansenism was getting right: that sin offends God, that so many of us seem indifferent to God, that we can slip into ingratitude toward God with startling ease. But rather than express this in terms of divine wrath, Jesus presents it as a tragedy of unrequited love. That is, sinners act this way not because God denies them the graces to do otherwise, but because they fail to appreciate the depth and breadth of God’s love for them. Jesus saw the same problem that the Jansenists saw, but he answered it with open arms and an open heart.
A great difficulty in believing in God’s love and mercy is simply accepting that God is so radically other. It’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea that the uncreated and unchanging God of the universe has a personal love for us. And so Jesus reminds us that He has a human heart, and with it, the full range of human emotions. Yet He is fully divine as well as fully human. Thus, our devotion is not just to the heart, but to the Sacred Heart. Jesus has at once the full experience of human emotions and the perfect vision of divine foreknowledge.
Pius XI illustrates the implications of this divine-human union in a beautiful reflection on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the one hand, he points out that it was chiefly “because of our sins also which were as yet in the future, but were foreseen” that the soul of Christ became “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). In other words, what weighed upon Christ was not principally the looming shadow of the Cross, but the weight of our sins.
But there is a happy corollary to this idea: that when we read that “there appeared to Him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him,” this should also be taken as Christ foreseeing our acts of reparation to the Sacred Heart, that “His Heart, oppressed with weariness and anguish, might find consolation.” And so, the pope concludes, “even now, in a wondrous yet true manner, we can and ought to console that most Sacred Heart which is continually wounded by the sins of thankless men.”
This is a wonderful and mind-bending insight. The promise of the Sacred Heart is that our actions today are wrapped up (through God’s perfect foreknowledge) with Christ’s experience in Gethsemane, that we are either adding one more burden to Him through our sins, or giving Him one more consolation through our acts of love and reparation. And so (in yet another encyclical on the Sacred Heart!) Pius XI encouraged that “the Feast of the Sacred Heart be for the whole Church one of holy rivalry of reparation and supplication,” in which we hasten in large numbers “to the foot of the altar to adore the Redeemer of the world, under the veils of the sacrament,” pouring our hearts out to His. What better way can we celebrate the triumph of Jesus’ love over the cold justice of Jansenism and our false conceptions of God?”
Within Thy Sacred Heart, dear Lord,
My anxious thoughts shall rest.
I neither ask for life, nor death;
Thou knowest what is best.
Say only Thou hast pardoned me,
Say only I am Thine,
In all things else dispose of me:
Thy Holy Will is mine.
And may Thy Sacred Heart, dear Lord,
E’er be my counsel sure,
Led in Thy Heart’s obedience
To make my own heart pure.
And when Thou shalt come claim my soul
Then may we never part,
For there shall be my only joy:
Within Thy Sacred Heart.
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Love, O Sacred Heart of Jesus, we place our trust in Thee!! (for generations, atraditional part of McCormick grace at evening meals),
“A major part of [Jordan} Peterson’s program has been introducing Jesus as the archetypal perfect man. In his provocative work At the Origins of Modern Atheism, the late Jesuit theologian Michael J. Buckley notes the abiding prestige of Jesus Christ as a moral authority during—and despite—the Enlightenment. Even secular thinkers turned to Jesus for guidance on how best to live. This comes as a surprise, since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were marked by an unprecedented rise in secularism in Europe.
“No one denied the moral genius of Jesus,” writes Buckley. “The Enlightenment agreed that Jesus was a Jewish ethical preacher still illuminating a world in which tradition and Church had distorted his beliefs and maxims.” There was one outlying group of “interpreters” of the New Testament who had gotten it right, however: the philosophers. The philosophers rejected his divinity, but many identified Christ nonetheless (in Thomas Paine’s words) as “a virtuous and amiable man.” Many, like Paine, compared him to Confucius in the East and the ancient Greeks in the West. To these, Jesus was a pre-eminent ethicist. But the Son of God he was not.
The secular great moral teacher narrative is alive and well today, too, thanks to figures like University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson. Peterson has captured the minds of many Christians. His project, taken in totality, is not perfectly harmonious with the Catholic worldview. (For a nuanced Catholic analysis of Peterson, see the work of Christopher Kaczor and Matthew Petrusek.) But in teaching the Bible from a strictly psychological point of view, Peterson has succeeded in making the Bible credible again to many a skeptic—at least as an ancient mythological text brimming with wisdom.
A major part of Peterson’s program (deeply inspired by twentieth-century psychiatrist Carl Jung) has been introducing the New Testament Christ as the archetypal perfect man. Many recent converts to Christianity have credited Peterson as the major factor, and thus his objective analysis of the sacred texts has made him, unintentionally, an important pre-Christian thinker for our times.
Non-believing historian Tom Holland has offered a similar pre-Christian service to the culture. Holland, in his book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, defends Christian values with vigor and conviction while defending the contention that Jesus’ crucifixion was the pivotal event by which West came to realize that even the “lowest of the low”—even a convicted criminal, humiliated and crucified by the highest authorities—possesses nonetheless the utmost dignity. In his more recent collection, Revolutionary: Who Was Jesus? Why Does He Still Matter?, Holland zeroes in with interest (now as editor) on the founder of Christianity, compiling a variety of essays from atheist, agnostic, and religious authors.
But can Christ be no more than an archetype, or a great moral teacher—or even just the perfect man?
In the final analysis, no—Jesus was infinitely more than these. He was God—goodness itself, apart from which there is no gold standard by which to measure the great moral sage from the self-imposing dictator.
C.S. Lewis had some things to say about this, famously. Jesus, in plain and clear words and language, claimed to be God. He must be Lord, liar, or lunatic. And we do not usually call con artists or lunatics great moral sages, nor do we call them archetypes of the perfect man.
Thus, as Lewis claimed back in the mid-twentieth century:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
Some have challenged that a fourth L should be added to Lewis’s trilemma. Could it all amount to a fanciful legend? This seems hardly a viable option. For as the pre-eminent New Testament historian N.T. Wright has written, “We have got almost as much good evidence for Jesus as for anyone in the ancient world.” Scholars like Wright, Brant Pitre, Craig Blomberg, Richard Burridge, and Richard Bauckham have shown that the Gospels are biographical and intended—with impressive reliability—to convey real facts of history according to eyewitness accounts.
That Peterson and other secular figures are advocating for Christ as a noble character is a good thing. It offers our post-Christian culture a pre-Christian service. But it is not enough. We need to be absolutely clear about this. They do not teach the gospel. For they deny (or at least do not affirm) Christ’s divinity. So, as Christians, we should be always ready to extract the good from the bad. Just as we do with ancient pre-Christian thought like that of Plato and Aristotle, we should labor to make the necessary distinctions and corrections in modern pre-Christian thought, and we should be abundantly clear with ourselves—and others—about both.
Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, often referenced as the C.S. Lewis of our times, gets right to the heart of it all. He writes:
“The only honest reason why anyone should ever believe Christianity, or anything else [is]: because it is true. It may also be helpful, comforting, challenging, relevant, responsible, creative, or dozens of other things; but none of those is the first reason why an honest person believes Christianity.”
Reframing this passage about belief in Christ demands no less: that we believe first because his claims about being co-equal with God are true. Jesus Christ is the everlasting God, and any spiritual system built upon a lesser Christ is barren. There are only two logical options: either take him at his word or dismiss him as a fraud. A lukewarm or falsely irenic Christology might as well be an atheistic Christology, and . . . well, in that case, it might as well just be a Christless atheism. For Christ—and there is no way around it—declared with unapologetic clarity and conviction that he was above even the Law (Matt. 5:17-48). He was clear about how he saw himself. These are not the claims of a great moral teacher. So it seems that the only real choices are God or nothing.
“”Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
If you have ever moved in Evangelical Protestant circles, you’ve probably been asked this question. A fundamental presupposition of Evangelical theology is that each person is called to a “personal relationship” with Jesus, and it is this relationship that brings us salvation.
Driving this “personal relationship” theology is usually evangelization. Most Christians seem to believe that making Jesus more directly accessible makes him more likely to be followed. If we can present Jesus as relatable, the thinking goes, it’s more likely someone will have a relationship with Him.
In recent decades, “personal relationship” theology has crept subtly into Catholic circles. It can be found especially in Catholic youth ministries as well as apostolates directed toward college students. In Catholic circles, this “personal relationship” theology is augmented with the understanding that a relationship with Jesus comes primarily through the reception of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and penance.
What’s often not made explicit—and perhaps often not even realized by those who promote it—is that “personal relationship” theology portrays Jesus primarily as a friend. After all, one doesn’t usually have a personal relationship with a king or a ruler, or even with a teacher. We most commonly have personal relationships with equals.
But this image of Jesus as a friend is not based in Scripture nor does it follow time-tested methods of evangelization. In the Bible, Jesus is called “friend” once: in Matthew 11:19, Christ notes that people say he’s a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
In John 15:14, Christ tells the apostles, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” and says they are no longer servants but “friends.” And in Luke 12:4, he refers to the disciples as “my friends.” However, other than these few references, nowhere else is Jesus presented as a friend.
Note that the Gospels do not shy away from giving Jesus titles and names. In Matthew’s Gospel alone he is referred to as “carpenter’s son,” “King of the Jews,” “Lord of the Sabbath,” “Physician,” “Son of David,” and “Son of God,” among a host of other designations. Most of His titles are prophetic or kingly, and “friend” is notably absent.
St. Paul does not present Jesus as a “friend” either. Then how does Paul portray Jesus? The answer provides a model for our own evangelization efforts today.
Let’s look at three Pauline passages: Colossians 1:12-20, Philippians 2:6-11, and Ephesians 1:3-10. All three are canticles and are the only three Pauline canticles included in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours (during evening prayer).
Colossians 1:12-20 (Wednesday, Evening Prayer)
Let us give thanks to the Father,
Who has qualified us to share
in the inheritance of the saints in light.
He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness
and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,
in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God,
the first-born of all creation;
for in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities
—all things were created through Him.
All things were created for Him.
He is before all else, and in Him everything has its being.
He is the head of the body, the church;
He is the beginning,
the first-born from the dead,
that in everything He might be pre-eminent.
For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
making peace by the blood of His cross.
In this canticle, Christ is given several titles, including “firstborn of all creation,” “the beginning,” and “head of the body, the Church.” Each of these titles presents an exalted view of Christ as someone who is above creation and, in fact, in charge of creation. But it’s the title in verse 15 that is key: Christ is “the image [icon] of the invisible God.” In other words, when we see Christ, we see the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God himself. In theological terms, this is “high Christology,” meaning it views Christ above humanity and above all creation. Paul follows this up in verse 19 when he writes, “In him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The Greek word for “fullness” [pleroma/πλήρωμα] signifies a completeness or perfection. In Christ we have the one, true God made flesh.
Philippians 2:6-11 (Sunday, Evening Prayer I)
Though He was in the form of God,
Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied Himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form
He humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted Him
and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
In this famous and beloved canticle, we begin with Christ “in the form of God,” that is, equal to God, as we saw in the passage from Colossians. But then there is movement: Christ is equal to God but he gives up that equality (“he emptied himself”), becoming man and even suffering the disgraceful death of the cross. Through this death, however, Christ is exalted and declared “Lord.” At His name “every knee should bow” both in heaven and on Earth. Again, we have a “high Christology.” Paul doesn’t see Christ as an equal, or someone who is simply a friend. He sees—and preaches—a Christ who is above all things. We don’t simply have a “personal relationship” with Him—we bend our knees to worship Him.
Ephesians 1:3-10 (Monday, Evening Prayer)
Blessed be the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world,
that we should be holy
and blameless before Him.
He destined us in love
to be His sons through Jesus Christ,
according to the purpose of His will,
to the praise of His glorious grace
which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
In Him we have redemption through His blood,
the forgiveness of our trespasses,
according to the riches of His grace
which He lavished upon us.
For He has made known to us
in all wisdom and insight
the mystery of His will,
according to His purpose
which He set forth in Christ
as a plan for the fullness of time,
to unite all things in Him,
things in heaven and things on earth.
In this final Pauline canticle for examination, we see Paul’s vision of the work Christ has accomplished in the world. He has brought redemption and the forgiveness of our trespasses (v. 7). But most importantly, in Christ, all things in heaven and earth are united to him in the fullness of time (v. 10). Christ is presented as a cosmic figure who brings about the reconciliation of the fallen universe. Everything became disordered through the actions of Adam and Eve, but now everything is reordered to Christ as head.
The type of language Paul uses for Christ is, unfortunately, foreign to our ears. We’ve grown up thinking of Christ in the words of the Doobie Brothers song, “Jesus is just alright with me.” We live in a casual age that, at least on the surface, prizes egalitarianism. We don’t have kings or rulers; we’re all to be considered equals. So we’ve lowered Jesus to our level to make him more palatable and acceptable to those around us. Paul saw Christ as the Image of the almighty God who became man, died for us, and in doing so restored and saved the whole universe. We, on the other hand, picture Jesus—and present him—as a good buddy we can count on in times of trouble.
Has this new presentation of Jesus been effective as a means of evangelization? It seems that it has not, as our era has seen a precipitous drop in the number of practicing Catholics. A Jesus equal to us is simply not worthy to be worshipped or followed.
People today are looking for more than a good buddy. They want someone to look up to and to follow. As a culture, we’ve insisted on cutting down our heroes and leaders, but this has left a void in our hearts, because we were made to serve a king. If we begin to preach Christ as King and Lord of the universe, many may decide to follow Him. Not simply as their friend, but as their God.”
“It may just be a guy thing, but young boys love to tell stories of their scars. It’s always humorous when I’m at the middle school and I just ask, “Hey, where’d you get that scar on your forehead?” and then the kid launches into an excited description of that time he was having a rock fight with his friend, and then he proceeds to show me three other scars and tell me their stories too.
Scars have stories. Even Shakespeare recognized this when he writes in his play Henry V about the warriors that fought with King Henry at the Battle of Crispin’s Day. He writes: “He that lives through this day and comes home safe, will stand when Crispin’s Day is named and will strip his sleeve and show his scars and say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s Day!’” For these men who fought with the king, their wounds would be their badge of honor, a testament to their courage. And Shakespeare goes on to say that any man who, out of cowardice, stayed home on Crispin’s Day would “hold their manhoods cheap” when in the presence of those brave warriors who bear the scars of the battle.
Jesus, then, to show His courage, His victory, shows His disciples His scars. Have you ever thought how odd that is? I mean, if you’re going to resurrect into a perfect Body, why not get rid of those scars in the hands and feet? Why not look perfect?
Very simple – the scars are a visible reminder of what He endured for them. When they see the scars, they see the price of repentance – but also the Victory of Christ.
As an ancient homily from the second century says, “We had left a garden; Christ returned to a garden to be betrayed and a garden to be buried. See on His face the spittle He received in order to restore to us the life He once breathed into us. See there the marks of the blows He received in order to refashion our warped nature in His image. On His back see the marks of the scourging He endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon our back. See His hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for we once wickedly stretched out our hands to a tree” in the Garden of Eden.
And consider the words of St. Theodore the Studite: “The Lord, like a brave warrior wounded in His hands, feet, and side, healed the wounds of sin that the evil serpent had inflicted on our nature.”
His wounds undo our wounds. His scars wipe away our scars. All of us have wounds and scars – we can’t get through life unscathed. Sometimes those scars are caused by other people: maybe we’ve been abused, treated poorly, bullied, hated, rejected. Maybe people we love have died. Maybe we’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, illness, fear. Maybe the scars came because we made bad choices: the guilt of our sin, the addictions we’ve developed, the broken relationships that we just can’t heal. All of us have wounds; all of us have scars. It would be impossible for any human being not to suffer or be wounded.
But wounds can either be healed or kill us. Wounds that are brought to Christ, the Divine Doctor, can be healed. Wounds that we hide, that we don’t treat, will fester and cause misery and unhappiness – and eventually the spiritual death of hatred.
We bring our wounds to Christ through prayer and Confession. Pray about it – “Lord, what are You teaching me through my suffering? How can You use it to make me more like You? What are You calling me to let go of? How can I trust You more?” This is bringing our wounds to Christ. Then, if the wound involves our own sin, we can bring it to the Lord in Confession. Sin is the biggest wound because it wounds our relationship with God – thus, Jesus’ first gift here in today’s Gospel is that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” comes through our faith in Him.
Life is tough, and sometimes we suffer. We suffer because of other people’s choices, we suffer because of our own bad choices and our sins, and sometimes we just suffer because we’re human. But when we get wounded, we can bring those wounds to Christ. He can forgive our sins. He can heal our wounds and make them, like His, signs of victory and triumph.”
“Scripture gives us many passages that call us to reflect on the role of the supernatural in our lives of faith. St. Paul encourages us to be open to the supernatural when he reminds us, “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything, holding fast to what is good” (Thess. 5:19-21).
Although Christ worked many miracles of healing, He did not encourage the search for miracles: “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given them except the sign of Jonah” (Matt. 16:4). Christ hints in a parable about Lazarus that even otherworldly revelations will not persuade the world: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 17:31). When the resurrected Christ addresses Thomas, He seems to be addressing us if we seek signs and wonders in our own day: “Have you come to believe because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29).
Despite asking us not to rest our faith entirely on miracles and to not get swept up in pursuing them, Jesus used miracles to draw people to him and encourage their faith. Even in our modern world, for many people, miracles are a connection to the supernatural that might inspire or enliven their belief and participation.
From the beginning of Scripture, God reveals Himself to humanity in major moments, from interactions with Adam in the creation account to Noah at the time of the Great Flood, to Moses, upon whom he bestows the Ten Commandments. There are at least 120 instances of revelation (dreams and visions) mentioned in the Old Testament.vi
Perhaps the Bible’s most famous dreamer was Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, who shared his revelations with his family, which resulted in his brothers plotting his death (Gen. 37:1-11). In one dream, the brothers of Joseph gathered bundles of grain that bowed to his own bundle. In another, the sun (his father), the moon (his mother), and eleven stars (his brothers) bowed down to Joseph himself.
Revelations continue in the New Testament. At the baptism of Christ, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). At the Transfiguration where Jesus is transformed on the mountaintop and becomes radiant, the prophets Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus (Matt. 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). A voice from the sky again calls Him “Son.”
The most famous apparitions in Scripture are the numerous times Christ appeared to the apostles (1 Cor. 15:5) and other times to various disciples, including on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). In the early Church, the deacon Stephen saw a vision of the heavens open and Christ at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 7:55-56). The “visions and revelations” from the Lord (Cor. 12:1-6) are the impetus for the conversion of Saul (Gal. 1:11-16), setting him on the path to become Paul, the greatest missionary in Christian history. The final book of the New Testament, Revelation, relates the visions of St. John.
The revelations of the Bible received by prophets and apostles showcase a supernatural connection between the Church and the divine. Throughout Christian history, there have been stories of visions and divine messages, the most common being those attributed to the Virgin Mary. Some Protestants, skeptical of the power and significance that Catholicism affords her, may doubt these reports, but the scriptural basis for Mary’s role in her Son’s saving work cannot be ignored:
Through her God the Father sent Christ to us physically.
Elizabeth received the grace of God through the mouth of Mary (Luke 1:44).
Jesus’ first miracle—the wedding feast at Cana—and the beginning of his public ministry came at her request (John 2:4).
From the cross, Jesus entrusted her to the care of St. John and symbolically to the care of all believers (John 19:26-27).
Although Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5-6), St. Paul has no problem asking the rest of us (including Mary) to be subordinate mediators as he asks us to pray for each other (Rom. 1:9, 1 Thess. 5:25, 1 Tim. 2:1). When we embrace the messages of Church-approved revelations of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, and reflect on the scriptural accounts of God’s tangible intrusions in the human experience, we appreciate more deeply God’s fatherly care for us and better understand His plan for salvation and our participation in it.”
Love, Lord, Holy Mary, all ye holy men and women, be near to me,
“Some people think of Jesus as a remarkable man but basically in the same category as Buddha, Moses, Confucius, and Gandhi: a good man, a holy man, but just a man.
This view, however, is hard to reconcile with what Jesus says and does. Jesus claims to be Lord over the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-5). Jesus forgives sins committed against God (Mark 2:5-12). Jesus says He is the one Who gives eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus says no one can convict Him of sin (John 8:46). Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter (Matt. 16:13-19). As Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli point out, “For a Jew, changing names was something only God could do, for your name was not just a human, arbitrary label but your real identity, which was given to you by God alone. In the Old Testament, only God changed names, and destinies—Abram became Abraham, Sari became Sarah, Jacob became Israel.”iii Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
And when His life was threatened and His enemies surrounded Him, Jesus said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” In attributing the sacred name of God, “I AM,” to Himself, Jesus was making Himself equal to God. His enemies understood this as blasphemy: “So they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area.” (John 8:57-59). Given the claims that Jesus makes about Himself, is it reasonable to believe that Jesus was simply a holy man and wise teacher?
In his classic book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis answers no. In fact, he says this is the one thing we can’t say about Jesus. “A man who was merely a man,” Lewis writes, “and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice.” Lewis outlines three possibilities. Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. He could not have been simply a good person, a saintly sage.
Was Jesus a liar?
One possibility is that Jesus knew He was not God but said He was; in other words, He deliberately lied. But it is hard to believe that a man hailed throughout the centuries as a paragon of goodness could have spent His life intentionally misleading and deceiving His disciples in this way. If Jesus knew He was not God but claimed to be God nevertheless, He wasn’t a good person—He was the worst religious charlatan of all time. If Jesus lied to His disciples about being God, then He misled to their violent deaths those who trusted Him most. He also led billions of people into the sin of idolatry. No, if He deliberately deceived others about His identity, Jesus was not a holy man, but a deeply narcissistic and malicious person.
This is not how most people perceive the Jesus of the Gospels. His life was so radically unlike other religious hucksters who claim to be God (or a prophet of God). Con artists claim to be God in order to amass wealth and a harem of young women to be their brides. But the character of Jesus is radically unlike that of a con man. He amassed no wealth and did not have even one wife, let alone a harem. Jesus did not seek power—“My kingdom is not of this world,” He said (John 18:36)—but rather laid down His life as a suffering servant. Jesus did not act like a lying con artist.
Was Jesus a lunatic?
If Jesus was not a liar, was He perhaps just mistaken about His identity? Maybe He wasn’t a liar because although He was not God He really thought He was God. In other words, Jesus was massively mistaken, but not a deliberate deceiver.
If Jesus was not divine but honestly and mistakenly thought He was, then Jesus was not a wise person. He was, therefore, very unlike Confucius, or Moses, or a sage. Kreeft and Tacelli note, “There are lunatics in asylums who sincerely believe they are God. The ‘divinity complex’ is a recognized form of pathology. Its character traits are well known: egoism, narcissism, inflexibility, dullness, predictability and an inability to understand and love others as they really are and creatively relate to others.” But Jesus is radically unlike a lunatic babbling in an insane asylum. His moral teachings stressed the importance of loving your neighbor, forgiving your enemies, and caring for those in need.
Moreover, the way Jesus responds to the traps set for Him indicates not a raving madman totally disconnected from reality but someone with practical wisdom. Consider, for example, when His enemies bring to him a woman caught in adultery. They set a brilliant trap: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” If Jesus says she should not be stoned, then He is acting against the laws of the community and against the authority of Moses. His enemies could then accuse Him of heresy and rebellion. If Jesus says that she should be stoned, then He is acting against His own teaching to show mercy to others. His enemies can then accuse Him of self-contradiction. Whatever He says, His enemies think they have Him trapped.
Jesus replies, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” In saying this, Jesus avoids acting against the Law of Moses, avoids contradicting Himself, and convicts those who want to stone her of their own sin. In the wisdom of His teaching and in the prudence of His actions, Jesus shows He is no madman.
Now, if Jesus was not a liar (because that would make him evil), and Jesus was also not a lunatic (because everything He says and does in the Gospel suggests otherwise), this only leaves the option that Jesus was Who He claimed to be: one with the Father; the Way, the Truth and the Life; and the Son of God.”
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.”
“The New Testament is replete with direct and indirect claims of Christ’s divinity. Perhaps the most famous is the beginning of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word and the word of with God and the word was God” (John 1:1-3). Jesus is the word made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is God.
Nevertheless, people have struggled to find places where Jesus himself claims to be divine. If you’re looking for a passage in Scripture where Jesus says, “Hey, everyone, I’m God!” you’re not going to find it.
Jesus does make such a claim several times, but it isn’t easy for us to see today, because we are not familiar with the first-century Jewish context he draws upon, and since these claims are somewhat veiled to our eyes, people can reinterpret Jesus’ words to explain away his divine self-reference. While such words can be explained away, his audience’s reaction to Jesus’ words isn’t so easy to dismiss.
Unless your view of the ancient world comes from Monty Python, people didn’t carry stones in their pockets just itching to stone someone. The charge of blasphemy was serious, and stoning was against Roman law. Therefore, the reaction of Jesus’ original hearers provides a solid indicator as to whether he claimed to be divine.
The high priest’s response
One example that I take up in my book concerns the reaction of the Jewish high priest to Jesus’ response during his trial before the Sanhedrin. The text reads:
The high priest rose before the assembly and questioned Jesus, saying, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But he [Jesus] was silent and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him and said to him, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?”’Then Jesus answered, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”At that the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further need have we of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as deserving to die (Mark 14:60-64; see also Matthew 26:61-66).
At first glance, it appears that the high priest is overreacting. Where did Jesus blaspheme? Some suggest that Jesus claimed the divine name for himself when he replied, “I am” (see Exodus 3:14). Saying the divine name aloud in the first century would have been a serious offense, but we know this is not the case from the parallel passage in Matthew, where “I am” is given as “you have said so” (Matt. 26:64).
Another possibility is that Jesus’ affirmation to being the Messiah was itself blasphemous. This option is even less likely since most Jews believed that the Messiah would be a mere mortal. Claiming to be the Messiah, therefore, would not constitute a claim to be God.
Why then did the high priest tear his robes in horror at Jesus’ words? Clearly, Jesus claimed something about himself that those present thought warranted immediate execution. But what? The answer may be found in Jesus’ use of the seventh chapter in the book of Daniel where the prophet receives a night vision and recalls:
As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened (Daniel 7:9-10).
Note that more than one throne was set up. One was for the “ancient of days,” namely, God, to sit upon, but what about the other? Keep this in mind as we continue with verse 13:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).
In this passage, “one like a son of man” comes “with the clouds of heaven” and presents himself before God (the Ancient of Days) and receives universal and everlasting dominion over the whole Earth.
Who sits on the other throne?
These two passages together cause a certain amount of exegetical tension. If God is one, why set up more than one throne? Who sits on the other throne? Indeed, how can any creature be worthy to be enthroned next to God?
Babylonian Talmud illustrates this tension by recording a dispute between two rabbis who lived in the first decades of the second century:
“One verse of Scripture states, ‘His throne was fiery flames (Dan. 7:9), but elsewhere it is written, ‘Till thrones were places, and one that was ancient of days did sit’ (Dan. 7:9)! . . . “One is for him, the other for David,” the words of R. Aqiba. Said to him R. Yosé the Galilean, “Aqiba, how long are you going to treat in a profane way the Presence of God? “Rather, one is for bestowing judgment, the other for bestowing righteousness” (Hagigah 2:1a-e).
Rabbi Aqiba understood this passage to refer to two thrones: one throne for God and the other for the Messiah, the son of David. Notice Rabbi Yose the Galilean’s response to Aqiba’s interpretation “How long are you going to treat in a profane way the Presence of God?” However great the Messiah would be, according to Rabbi Yose’s perspective, being seated on a throne would be a profanation of the Divine Presence. Instead, he suggested, the two thrones should be understood as symbols for God’s judgment and the bestowing of righteousness.
Later in the passage, Aqiba eventually adopts this view. Others proposed that one throne was for God to be seated and the other was his footstool (Isaiah 66:1). In any case, the two thrones were for God alone. Another individual, even the Messiah, could not take the other throne without detracting from the glory of the one true God, since to be enthroned was to possess the authority to exercise dominion. It’s interesting that later rabbis did interpret Daniel 7 to be messianic, but they omit any mention of the thrones.
Jesus as “the son of man”
The prophet Daniel never tells us who sits on the other throne, but he does tells us that the “one like the son of man” presents himself before God (the Ancient of Days) and he receives an everlasting and universal dominion. Does this mean that the “son of man” is seated on the other throne? Daniel doesn’t say, but Jesus’ reply to the high priest does affirm this question: “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
The “son of man” does sit on the throne at the right hand of the Power (God) and comes with the clouds of heaven—and Jesus is that Son of Man who receives universal and everlasting dominion! No wonder the high priest tore his robes in horror. Jesus made himself equal to God.
To us who may not be familiar with the prophecies of Daniel, Jesus’ words seem to pertain only to his Second Coming without any reference to his divinity. The high priest’s reaction forces us to look deeper into the passage to find some warrant for his actions. In this case, the high priest is a hostile witness to the proper meaning of this passage.”
Love, He reigns,
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., "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "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. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom