One would think that if anyone’s date of birth were remembered exactly, it would that of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the Gospels do not pinpoint the date of Christ’s birth. The reason is probably that the focus of the Gospels is on the kerygma or mystery of redemption the passion, death and resurrection of Christ.
This focus is also probably why St. Mark's Gospel does not even include the Christmas story, but instead begins with the baptism of the Lord at the River Jordan. Easter, on the other hand, can be better dated because of its concurrence with Passover.
Prior to the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D., no universal date or even formal celebration of Christmas is found. For instance, Origen (d. 255), St. Irenaeus (d. 202) and Tertullian (d. 220) do not include Christmas or its date on their lists of feasts and celebrations. Again, the spiritual focus was on Easter.
After legalization, the Church was better able to establish universal dates for feasts and to organize their public celebration. Moreover, the Church had to address emerging controversies concerning Jesus as true God and true man, and how He entered this world. Such concern would focus more attention on the importance of celebrating Christmas, the birth of our Lord.
On the more “practical” side of this issue, Roman pagans used to gather at the hill where the Vatican is presently located to commemorate the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun.” This pagan feast was celebrated throughout the Empire either on December 25 (according to the Julian Calendar) or on January 6 (according to the Egyptian calendar). Although not proven with certainty, some historians credit Constantine, who declared Sunday as a day of rest in the Empire, with replacing the pagan festival with that of Christmas.
However, we must not impetuously conclude that Constantine simply wanted to replace one imperial pagan religious festival with another imperial Christian religious festival. There is a deeper theological reason why December 25 was chosen as the date to celebrate the birth of our Lord. St. Paul indicates in his Letters to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians a cosmic relationship with Christ. Jesus is the second person of the Holy Trinity, true God and consubstantial with the Father for all eternity. He is the Word of God, through Whom the Father spoke and creation unfolded: “In Him everything in Heaven and on earth was created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, principalities, or powers; all were created through Him, and for Him” (Col 1:16).
By the will of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus entered this world, true God become true man, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Only Christ, true God who became also true man, could take unto Himself the burden of all sin: “It pleased God to make absolute fullness reside in Him, and by means of Him, to reconcile everything in His person, both on earth and the heavens, making peace through the blood of His Cross” (Col 1:20).
Moreover, on Easter Sunday, Christ rose from the dead; He conquered not just sin, but death itself. Through His passion, death and resurrection, Christ has created a new world order, “so that at Jesus’s name every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father: Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:10-11). Therefore, “God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery, the plan He was pleased to decree in Christ, to be carried out in the fullness of time: namely to bring all things in the heavens and on earth into one under Christ’s headship” (Eph 1:9-10).
With this teaching in mind, the birth of Christ marks the beginning of a new world order, a restoration of the cosmos and a reconciliation of mankind with God all of which will be fulfilled in the passion, death and resurrection. Interestingly, since the 200s, Jesus was honored with the title, “Sun of Justice.” So rightly, the Church utilized a Roman pagan feast, “The Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” and positively transformed it into a commemoration of the Birth of Christ, the Lord of creation and the light that came into the world to dispel sin and darkness.”
Later Christmas sermons reflected this understanding: St. Jerome preached, “Even creation approves our preaching. The universe itself bears witness to the truth of our words. Up to this day [Christmas], the dark days increase, but from this day the darkness decreases.… The light advances, while the night retreats.” St. Augustine preached, “Brethren, let us rejoice. The heathen, too, may still be merry, for this day consecrates for us, not the visible sun, but the sun’s invisible Creator.”
In practice, Christmas was celebrated in Rome by Pope Liberius (352-66) on December 25. On December 25, 379, St. Gregory Nazianzus preached a Christmas sermon in Constantinople. In the Cathedral of Milan, St. Ambrose (d. 397) celebrated Christmas. Therefore, by the year 400, generally, the birth of Christ was set on December 25 with the exception of Palestine, where it was celebrated on January 6 until the mid-600s when it was then transferred to December 25.
As an aside, the feast of the Epiphany also emerged in Gaul (the Roman province of present-day France) about the year 361. This feast was moved to January 6, which remains the official date.
While the concern for exact dating may preoccupy us at times, the most important point is celebrating the birth of our Lord. Remember that the title “Christmas” is derived from the Old English title “Cristes Maesse” which means “The Mass of Christ.” This Christmas, may we lift up our hearts at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and receive our Lord, born again into our souls through the grace of the holy Eucharist.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)