18 December [Fourth Sunday of Advent]
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.
Like a planet in conjunction Isaiah looms very large in the Advent Liturgy. Many of his expressions could almost be from the New Testament. John the Baptist comes even closer. But in Mary the contact is made; the Presence has become a reality.
“She will bear a son” (Matthew 1:21), or “You will bear a son” (Luke 1:31). Matthew’s gospel tells the story from Joseph’s point of view, Luke’s tells it from Mary’s. But the story is the same: the Child will soon be born of her.
Christmas is now upon us. But December 25th was almost certainly not the day of his birth! That date was not chosen till the year 440 A.D. I remember being severely hassled on this very point by a Jehovah's Witness. To him it summed up the tissue of lies that he took the Catholic Church to be. Would it affect your faith if you heard that Jesus was born in the middle of August, for instance, or at the end of February…? Would it at least ruin your Christmas? Would it shock you even more to know that scholars are not certain even about the year of his birth? But one thing is sure: he was not born in the year 0, because there was no such year! (1 B.C. was followed immediately by 1 A.D.) His birth is usually put at 3 or 4 B.C.
Scholars believe that December 25th was chosen because in Anglo-Saxon England the year began on that date. It is the winter solstice (more or less), the shortest day in the year.
Christmas festivals, generally observed by Christians since the 4th century, incorporate pagan customs, such as the use of holly, mistletoe, Yule logs, and so on. Many other things that we might have imagined deriving from Bethlehem itself are of much more recent origin. The Christmas tree is derived from the so-called paradise tree, symbolising Eden, of German mystery plays. In 1841 Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, introduced the Christmas tree custom to Britain, from where it spread to America.
Meanwhile, Dutch settlers in America had brought with them the custom of celebrating St Nicholas' Day on December 6, and especially St Nicholas' Eve, when gifts were given to children, of whom the saint was patron. British settlers there took over the tradition as part of their own Christmas Eve celebration. The English name of the legendary jolly, red-garbed man who delivers presents to good children at Christmas, Santa Claus, is derived from the name 'St Nicholas' (say it fast and you will see why).
If any of that information disappoints you, let me assure you that our faith doesn’t rest on dates or customs or folklore, but on the simple accounts of the life and death of Jesus that the gospels give us. It is true that St Luke takes great care to show that the events he is recounting are precisely located in history: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar - when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” (3:1). But it is enough to know that the Word became flesh in human history; we don’t need to put exact numbers on it.
Celebrating the birth of Jesus at the winter solstice has immense symbolic meaning, however, and that is why the date was chosen in the first place. When the days are shortest and it looks as if the sun is abandoning the world to darkness… suddenly the sun begins to return, and the days lengthen! The Sun is returning to us! It is the surprise of Newgrange, experienced since 3,200 B.C. But for Christians, symbolically it is the surprise of the Incarnation: the Light has come into a dark world…. “The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
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