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Religion Column

December 10, 2011

Press has few revelations about Christmas

Newspaper staffs feel obliged to write something catchy during holiday seasons. To be "catchy" usually means to be either a novelty or at least a little bit outrageous.

When it comes to Christmas, there isn't much that it really new. So journalists try to get readers' attention with articles featuring a hint of scandal. In an era when few people actually read the Bible, an easy way to scandalize the public is to proclaim that "not all of the Gospels even tell us about Christmas!"

Of course, this is no news to actual Bible readers, who know that John's Gospel starts with the Creation of the world, and Mark's begins with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke tell about how Jesus' birth came to pass. And we of course remember that Matthew and Luke provide different overlapping details of the events. The Gospel writers are not redundantly repeating each other. They complement each other to give us a 360 degree portrait of Jesus.

Inevitably _ mark my words! _ you will also see an article somewhere this month which claims it was not actually on Dec. 25 that Jesus was born. This will be uttered with amazement, in tones announcing that we at last know who really shot JFK _ and it turns out that it was the same person who also assassinated both John Lennon and Elvis Presley (while the rest of us didn't even catch that Elvis was, as the saying goes, "done in")!

When you see some writer asserting that Jesus was not necessarily born on Dec. 25, the proper response is: "Well, nobody ever thought he was!"

On what date was Jesus actually born? Nobody _ except for God Himself and the Virgin Mary _ actually knows. It was not clearly recorded in any of the Gospels. There are various theories. Many are interesting. None of them are certain.

What is certain is that Dec. 25 has been the date appointed to celebrate the Nativity since very early centuries of the Church.

Why on that date? Again, some popular journalists will assert (or at least suggest) that Dec. 25 was a pagan winter holiday taken over by the church. It is true that almost every ancient culture marked the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. But that was usually on Dec. 21 _ and ancient people were not so bad at arithmetic that they would miss the time by four whole days. No pagan holiday fell on the 25th.

On the other hand, there was (and still is) a Christian holy day exactly 9 months before Dec. 25: the Feast of the Annunciation, which commemorates the angel Gabriel's visit to the Virgin Mary. Presumably that event marked the conception of Jesus, who then arrived precisely on time for his birth nine months later to the day. If only we were all that prompt and punctual!

If Christ's birth is celebrated nine months after his conception is celebrated, then the logical question is: Why is his conception celebrated on March 25?

That date is mysterious. It is already an established tradition in our earliest records. It is likely that it is symbolic. March 25 appears to have been one date on which the Passover was celebrated by the earliest Christians after they were expelled from the synagogues. Christians were celebrating Jesus' sacrificial death for us. It is possible that they thought of his whole life on earth as part of that sacrifice. If so, then it was natural to think that his life begins with his conception. As St. Luke tells us, even while in Mary's womb, Jesus was recognized as Lord by John the Baptist _ who was himself still in the womb of Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth.

Obviously Jesus was born on some specific day. But the time we celebrate it carries more than just trivial information; it carries a message. The message ties together Jesus' birth and the reason for which he was born: to offer himself as a unique and perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

It is important that we remember that "Jesus is the reason for season." It is also important to remember that the reason for Jesus was what is contained in the very meaning of his name, which means "The Lord Saves." Christ is born of Mary, born in Bethlehem, and his birth is good news for all who receive him. Winter, spring, summer or fall, "unto us this day is born for us in the City of David a Savior, Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11.)

The Rev. Kenneth Hunter is pastor at St. James' Episcopal Church in Oneonta.

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