By Chor-Episcopos Dr. Kyriakos of Chicago
Remember that the celebration of Christmas was not one of the original feasts related to the mystery of Christ celebrated by the ancient Church. Among all the feasts of the Church the most important was the Celebration of Resurrection of Christ or Passover, or Pascha, because it was His resurrection that sealed His Messianic role and perfect divinity. The second most important feast was the Baptism of Christ during which the Father revealed to the world that Jesus was His beloved Son through the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and this feast is generally called Epiphany, but easterners love to call it Theophany, because it was the manifestation of Christ as God. In the East these were the most important feasts concerning the mystery of Christ.
Things changed in the Church after Constantine the Great declared freedom for the Church in the beginning of the fourth century. The feast of Saturnalia, a licentious celebration of the winter solstice dedicated to Saturn, was Christianized by the Church of Rome to attract the Roman pagans to Christianity. Saturnalia had many features: As the nights became longer and darker with the arrival of winter the display of light everywhere became an important observance of the feast. With winter comes the cessation of life, particularly the vegetation; and in order to give hope of life to a frozen world of winter the display of evergreen plants and green wreaths in general was also another feature. Such practices easily found their ways into the Christianized feast, now called the feast of the Nativity of Christ (Christmas is an Anglo-Saxon rendering of the same feast), with the emphasis that Christ, who was the ultimate light and the light of light, became the new focus of the celebration; and the Roman Christianized pagans began to celebrate the birth of Christ, the light of light in conjunction with the Saturnalia celebrations.
From Rome, which was the center of the civilized world then, the celebration moved to the East, where it was not welcomed as it had been intended by the Romans. Although the Eastern Christians did not oppose the idea of a feast of the nativity of Christ, they did not embrace the date it was observed in Rome, for the simple reason that Saturnalia had no meaning for them. They accepted the feast and placed it immediately attached to Theophany. Hence, the feast of nativity of Christ was celebrated on January 7 every year, some even celebrated it with Theophany. It was at this time all Orthodox Christians and other eastern Christians celebrated the feast of Nativity. In recent times, we see that the Orthodox minorities in western countries have moved their observance of the feast of nativity of Christ along with their western brethren on December 25. However, we see that the majority of eastern Christians still follow January 6 or 7 as their Christmas day, for example, the Russians, Ukrainians and other eastern European Orthodox Christians, Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians. Please note that those Christians, who celebrate the nativity of Christ on December 25, also celebrate the annunciation to Mary on March 25 (exactly nine months prior to the birth of Christ).
Based on historical and circumstantial evidences the majority of scholars agree that Christ was not born in the winter; Christ’s birth took place some time in the autumn or spring according to them.
Then why don’t we change the date? We do not know the exact date. The most important idea is the observance of the truth of the nativity of Christ, for which a date does not matter much. Some modern radical cults may argue that our present day Christmas celebrations have their roots in paganism and hence it should be abolished or discontinued. They raise the allegations that the use of incense and processions during this feast were directly taken from paganism. With those critics we humbly argue that the Church has during the course of her history accepted many innocent pagan practices into her life, as long as they are not directly or indirectly opposed to Christian faith. However, we would like to point out that the use of incense was common in Jewish worship; the magi offered incense to baby Jesus along with gold and myrrh. If processions were a contribution of pagans, how do we justify the precession of the Jews that received Jesus with great jubilation on Palm Sunday into Jerusalem, the Sunday before His resurrection? Processions are expressions of different emotions; it could be for expressing great joy, or deep sorrow, or lamentation.
Atheists do believe that the celebration of Christmas is an immoral activity! They attack the display of manger scenes not only in public places, but also in private properties. Recently the city police department forced to remove a publicly visible shrine of the Virgin Mother of Jesus erected on one’s private property, in a suburb of Chicago, on the basis that there were complaints from neighbors! This is a sample of the anti-Christian sentiments everywhere in the world.
In the midst of these anti-Christian sentiments all over, we Christians have to go deeper into the meaning of our Christmas and internalize the spirit behind it. Our problems erupted from its celebrations in purely hedonistic tones, such as gluttonous drinking and eating, meaningless gift exchanges demanding others to compete, and sheer commercialization of a great mystery that turned human history into a rational and soteriological encounter with its Author.
First of all we have to realize that it is not the birth a Buddha, or a Gandhi or any gurus of history that we are celebrating. If this fact is ideally comprehended, we can avoid much of the problems we are confronted with. We have to make the world understand that this Christ whose birthday we celebrate is the sum total of history itself.
Christ’s birth was clearly foretold centuries ago prior to His birth. We cannot see such prophesies attached to the birth of Buddha, or Muhammad, or Gandhi or any other gurus of the world. Christ was not the invention of the first century; He was the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecies.
WE find more than three hundred prophecies in the Hebrew Bible regarding the person and mystery of the Messiah, the Christ. The first prophecy is contained in the 3rd chapter of the Book of Genesis, where we read : “ Thus the Lord said to the serpent, ‘… I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will bruise your head…’” (OSB Gen. 3: 14, 15). A woman does not have a seed, and this prophesy indicates the birth of Jesus from a virgin without fertilization by the seed of a man; moreover it clearly points to the destruction of Satan by her seed, Jesus. These prophesies also declared Christ’s genealogical line from David (2 Samuel 7: 10-17, Psalms 89: 3-4, Jeremiah 23:5). Jesus met these criteria in the first chapter of the Gospels according to St. Matthew and St. Luke.
Augustus Caesar ordered that everyone had to return to the city of his ancestry and birth to be counted for taxation (Gospel According to Luke 2.1). It was this order that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem where Jesus was born in a manger. This was to fulfill the prophesy made by Micah: “And you, O Bethlehem, House of Ephratah, though you are fewest in number among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to me the One to be the ruler of Israel. His goings forth were from the beginning, even from everlasting” (OSB 5:1).
The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. If Mary delivered Jesus in Nazareth the story of Jesus would have entirely different Look how providence guides all events for the fulfillment of Messianic prophesies!
But the Jews did not pay attention to these prophecies and rejected Jesus as the Christ or Messiah, and still wait for His coming. Our Jewish brethren, if you are still waiting for the Messiah please read Malachi chapter 3:1: “‘Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way for Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come into His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, whom you desire. Behold, He is coming’, says the Lord Almighty” (OSB). God sent his messenger to prepare His way in the person of John the Baptist. The Lord came into His temple already and he taught in His temple, and you rejected Him. That temple was destroyed by the Roman army 38 years in AD 70 after His ascension. No would-be Messiah could come into that temple after AD 70 in order to make this scripture prophecy true. Having all the temple records regarding Jewish ancestral genealogy destroyed in AD 70, how would you substantiate the “lineage of David” for any future Messiah? During the Holy Week, the Syrian Liturgy laments: “O Jews, your house has become totally empty …”
Yes, the Messiah came into His temple.
Even the very act of crucifixion of Christ was according to the Old Testament prophecy. “The Scepter shall not depart from Judah… until Shiloh (Messiah) comes …” (OSB Genesis 49:10). Actually the Jews lost their self-determining power as a nation immediately after the birth of Christ, around AD 7. They could not exercise the ultimate authority of administering capital punishment. They had had the absolute authority to condemn a criminal to death by stoning. But since AD 7, that authority was taken away from them by the Romans. That is why Jesus, instead of being stoned to death for blasphemy, was crucified by the Romans- the ultimate punishment inflicted by Roman law. This was to fulfill the prophesy that “…they pierced my hands and my feet” (OSB Psalms 21: 17).
St Paul in Galatians tells us that God sent forth His Son when the fullness of time was come (4:4). Jesus was to be born before the scepter departed from Judah, His birth at Bethlehem was determined by a Roman decree, His death by crucifixion was determined by Roman occupation of the land, he also had to come into his temple before it was destroyed and before records of his ancestry were destroyed….
Readers: This is not the folklore of a religious culture; it is history closely woven into divine prophecies. This is not the story of a Buddha or a Krishna or a Rama, the so-called avatars in eastern religions, or the prophet of any religion. This is the story of God becoming human. This story started with the Holy Trinity in eternity finding its meaning in time and space two thousand years ago by making the whole event part of human history.
About 900 years ago Anselm asked: Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God Become Man?) The Answer is simple: To restore the image of God in man. Unless we realize that there is total transformation needed in the totality of our person, we would remain still disfigured with the wounds and scars of sin. Sadly, we Christians do not realize that our divine similitude still remains distorted with our sins of pride, ego, impurity, sexual lust, fornication, adultery, gluttony, blasphemy, deception, and all the foundational sins that destroy the icon of our Creator in our persons. WE are Christians nominally; peripherally we act like Christians, look like Christians, worship like the early Christians and pretend to be Christians. From the top of the hierarchy to the bottom of the laity, we lack the presence of the Holy Spirit, because He cannot reside in us as a result of our belongingness to vices of this world.
Repentance usually is a theme for the Lenten Season before Pascha; but we urge every Christian to genuinely repent about his sins and humble himself in order for him to be cleansed from his iniquities. Then the Holy Spirit will abide in us and Christ Jesus will be born in our persons, our souls.
Jesus, we glorify Your compassion towards us! We venerate Your humility! We adore Your incarnation for our sake!
O COME, LET US ADORE HIM!
VENITE, ADOREMUS DOMINUM!