Why Christmas is on December 25

Biblical Archaeology Review has a good scholarly discussion of why Christmas is celebrated on December 25. And it is evidently NOT because it was superimposed on a pagan holiday:

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.

It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly. . . .

There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. . . . In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E. . . . .

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8 But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

The article goes on to document other ancient sources that associate the day of Jesus’s conception with the day of His death, going back to rabbinic Jewish texts that make similar connections.

Evangelism without the gospel

Have you seen the “Receive Jesus” ad on national television? (I can’t find it on the web. If any of you can find it, please post a link.) It has a rather cool-looking guy with a goatee and a black t-shirt against a white background. He says how life is hard. But that Jesus can make an amazing difference in your life. He tells viewers, wherever they are, to “receive Jesus.” It’s rather well-done, better than my description makes it sound.

But the ad nowhere includes the Gospel! He doesn’t say anything about sin or forgiveness or who Jesus is or what He accomplished for us on the Cross.

This is not uncommon, trying to be evangelistic while leaving out the evangel. Just telling someone to “receive Jesus” and encouraging a rote prayer to that effect without proclaiming the Gospel doesn’t make anyone a Christian, does it? I’m sure the makers of this ad do believe that Jesus died for sinners and that His death and resurrection grants forgiveness. So why did they go to all of the expense of this ad without saying that?

I’m all for using the media like this for evangelism and salute the effort, but the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners surely has to be in the message, doesn’t it?

Writing on the Shroud of Turin?

A researcher has found traces of writing on the Shroud of Turin that, she says, provides evidence of its authenticity as the burial cloth of Christ. From Faint Shroud of Turin text proves artifact real, book says:

A Vatican researcher claims a nearly invisible text on the Shroud of Turin proves the authenticity of the artifact revered as Jesus' burial cloth.

The claim made in a new book by historian Barbara Frale drew immediate skepticism from some scientists, who maintain the shroud is a medieval forgery.

Ms. Frale, a researcher at the Vatican archives, said Friday that she used computers to enhance images of faintly written words in Greek, Latin and Aramaic scattered across the shroud.

She asserts the words include the name "Jesus Nazarene" in Greek, proving the text could not be of medieval origin because no Christian at the time, even a forger, would have labeled Jesus a Nazarene without referring to his divinity.

The shroud bears the figure of a crucified man, complete with blood seeping out of nailed hands and feet, and believers say Christ's image was recorded on the linen fibers at the time of his resurrection.

The fragile artifact, owned by the Vatican, is kept locked in a special protective chamber in Turin's cathedral and is rarely shown.

Skeptics point out that radiocarbon dating conducted in 1988 determined it was made in the 13th or 14th century.

While faint letters scattered around the face on the shroud were seen decades ago, serious researchers dismissed them due to the test's results, Ms. Frale told the Associated Press.

But when she cut out the words from photos of the shroud and showed them to experts, they concurred the writing style was typical of the Middle East in the first century – Jesus' time.

She believes the text was written on a document by a clerk and glued to the shroud over the face so the body could be identified by relatives and buried properly. Metals in the ink used at the time may have allowed the writing to transfer to the linen, Ms. Frale claimed.

She said the text also partially confirms the Gospels' account of Jesus' final moments. A fragment in Greek that can be read as "removed at the ninth hour" may refer to Christ's time of death reported in the holy texts, she said.

I take no position on the authenticity of the Shroud, and agree that we are to believe through the Word only. And yet, I first read about the artifact at a key time in my life, and it reminded me (then in the liberal church of my childhood) that Christianity is not about some vague, cloudy abstractions but about tangible, historical realities. So I am still interested. But defenders of the Shroud need to answer those radio-carbon dates. I would add that if there is writing in Greek on the cloth, that it would be unlikely to have been put there by a European medieval forger, since the Greek language was not known in the West in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Luther’s writings on vocation

I have been charged with putting together some curriculum on Luther’s writings on vocation. This teaching, of course, is scattered throughout his voluminous works, but I need to pull together some primary sources. My task is complicated by the habit of Luther scholars of referring to his works by volume and page number from his collected works, often the German edition, instead of by the title of his book or sermon. (Could Luther scholars agree not to do that, or, rather, to give the title of the work, as well as where it can be found in the collected works?)

Anyway, Frank Sonnek put me onto this sermon, which is a good example of what I am looking for and is available online. It’s Luther’s sermon on the NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY, preached in Marburg in 1529. Here is a paragraph on vocation. I will also throw in a paragraph on the kingdom of Christ just because it is so beautiful and profound. Both quotes show Luther at his stylistic best:

Our foolishness consists in laying too much stress upon the show of works and when these do not glitter as something extraordinary we regard them as of no value; and poor fools that we are, we do not see that God has attached and bound this precious treasure, namely his Word, to such common works as filial obedience, external, domestic, or civil affairs, so as to include them in his order and command, which he wishes us to accept, the same as though he himself had appeared from heaven. What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles? How happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy, not for the work’s sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is greater than heaven and earth. . . .

Therefore we are to regard the kingdom of Christ as a large, beautiful arch or vault which is everywhere over us, and covers and protects us against the wrath of God; yea, as a great, extended firmament which pure grace and forgiveness illuminate and so fill the world and all things, that all sin will hardly appear as a spark in comparison with the great, extended sea of light; and although sin may oppress, it cannot injure, but must disappear and vanish before grace.

Now let me ask for your help. What are some other Luther writings on vocation? “Freedom of the Christian,” of course. “Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved.” The catechisms. What else? What sermons and postils and commentaries? What is the source of the oft-quoted but seldom sourced quotation about how changing a baby’s diaper is a holier work than that of all the monks in all the monasteries?

How to deal with distractions

When you pray or have devotions or listen to a sermon, do you get distracted? Do thoughts come into your mind that carry you away from concentrating on God? See what John Kleinig says, by way of Hermann Sasse (the great conservative Lutheran theologian who opposed the Nazis and the Nazified church in Germany). From that book I have been pushing Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today:

“Distraction upset me so much that I eventually gained enough courage to seek help form one of my teachers, Dr. Hermann Sasse. He listened attentively and patiently, as I explained some length how the devil always seemed to distract me at inappropriate times. When I had finished, he stopped, turned to face me, and said, ‘Who says that it is the devil? Perhaps it is the Holy Spirit.’ With that he went on his way, leaving me shocked by what he had said.”

“That bit of advice has proved to be the best spiritual counsel I have ever received. It make such good sense theologically. When else could we expect to receive the guidance of the Holy Spirit than when we are engaged in listening to His Word or in praying are inspired by His Word? Since then, I have learned to regard distractions that I experience in public worship and in my devotions as the summons of the Holy Spirit, who uses these distractions to connect my life with God’s Word and to apply God’s Word to my life. Whenever I remember, I note the distractions that interrupt my worship and devotions and take each of them, if possible, as an instruction from the Holy Spirit—an instruction about something that I need to repent of or to pray for; an instruction about who to pray for and how; an instruction about what to enjoy as a good gift from God or to receive with thanksgiving…” (pp. 84- 85)

Thus, the very distractions are co-opted and turn the attention back to God as occasions for prayer. Not only that, it actually causes us to pray about what is really on our minds. This is brilliant advice, as I can testify from personal experience. Try it.

Have an unmerry Advent!

Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter. That is, Advent and Lent are both penitential seasons–times to look at our lives under the Law, sober times of repentance and discipline that serve as preparation for the glorious celebrations of the Gospel that are the festivals of the Incarnation and the Resurrection of our Lord.

As our pastor put it in his sermon yesterday, this is out of synch with everyone else:

While the world is jumping into Christmas with both feet, the church says “wait.” While the world cries “joy!” the church cries “repent!” And while the world feasts, the church fasts.

But there is, indeed, Advent joy. Click the link for what that entails.

What Christian spirituality is

From Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today by John W. Kleinig:

“When I speak about spirituality, I do not envisage something extraordinary—a superior way of being a Christian that is open only to a religious elite or a more advanced stage in the spiritual life. I have in mind what is given to every faithful person. Christian spirituality is, quite simply, following Jesus. It is the ordinary life of faith in which we receive Baptism, attend the Divine Service, participate in the Holy Supper, read the Scriptures, pray for ourselves and others, resist temptation, and work with Jesus in our given location here on earth. By our practice of spirituality we are not raised to a higher plane above the normal, everyday, bodily life, but we receive the holy Spirit from Christ so that we can live in God’s presence each day of our lives as we deal with people and work, sin and abuse, inconvenience and heartbreak, trouble and tragedy. We are not called to become more spiritual by disengaging from our earthly life, but simply to rely on Jesus as we do what is given for us to do, experience what is given for us to experience, and enjoy what is given for us to experience, and enjoy what is given for us to enjoy.” (Page 23)

“Thus all that our body does outwardly and physically, if God’s Word is added to it and it is done through faith, is in reality and in name done spiritually. Nothing can be so material, fleshly, or outward, but it becomes spiritual when it is done in the Word and in faith. Spiritual is nothing else than what is done in us and by us through the Spirit and faith, whether the object with which we are dealing is physical or spiritual.” (Page 24)

The table as altar

Columnist Sally Quinn , writing about entertaining guests, tossed off a provocative comparison:

When you think about it, there is a sacred quality to the sharing of a meal. Just think of Jesus's last supper as an example. The table can be a kind of altar, with a cloth, candles, wine and bread.

This, I believe, is a valid connection. As we exercise the priesthood of all believers in vocation, we serve at different altars, where we perform sacrifices of ourselves in love and service to our neighbors. We present our bodies as living sacrifices at these altars–which may be a computer, a desk, a diaper-changing table–and they are also places where we can offer up the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. But a table is especially a kind of altar, and it is fitting to adorn special meals, such as the Thanksgiving Feast, with cloths and candles and offerings.

In a meal, we receive the benefit of life sacrificed for us so that we may live–the turkey gave its life for us; so did the vegetables on our plate–life being impossible without the sacrifice of other life. Every time we eat a meal, we experience that truth, which points to the gospel of Christ, who, in turn, gives Himself to us in a meal.

Jesus swaps places with us

From Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today by John W. Kleinig (which, at last count, we have boosted to #7,389 on the Amazon.com bestseller list, up from #200,000 something):

“Jesus does not offer us superhuman life; He does not turn us into supermen and superwomen with extraordinary physical and mental powers. Instead, He swaps places with us. He joins us in our human life on earth so that we can join Him in his life with God the Father. By Jesus’ union with us, we share in His Sonship, just as a woman who marries a man joins his family. Jesus’ position with God the Father, His status all his privileges as God’s only Son, His righteousness and His holiness, His access to the Father, His Father’s love and delight in Him, and the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit—all these are our through faith in Jesus. Yet we do not possess these gifts by ourselves; we have them only as we receive them from Jesus. We have eternal life by believing in Him and receiving it from Him. In short we borrow everything from Him.

Jesus joins Himself to us and takes us on the way that He pioneered. Therefore, we depend on Jesus as the author and perfecter of our journey in faith (Hebrews 3:14; 12:2). Since we have been baptized, we join with Him in His journey and receive all that He has gained for us in His death and resurrection. We have been crucified with Christ, put to death with Him and buried with Him; we have been raised from the dead with Him, made alive with Him and enthroned with Him in the heavenly realms for work (Romans 6:4-8; 3:1; 2 Timothy 2:11:12). As we follow Jesus in the journey of faith, we receive from Him and share in His divine life as God’s Son.” (Page 11-12)

THE book on Christian spirituality for today. . .

. . .has to be Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today by John W. Kleinig. Dr. Kleinig is an Australian theologian, Bible scholar, and Lutheran seminary professor who is one of the most illuminating teachers I have come across. Many Christians today have gotten interested in “spirituality,” with some exploring Eastern meditation and arcane mysticism without ever being introduced to the distinctly Christian approach to the spiritual life. This book explores the unique “receptive spirituality” that is the life of the Gospel of Christ. Christian spirituality find its expression in prayer, the Word, the sacraments, struggle against Satan’s temptations, and VOCATION. It has to do above all with receiving “grace upon grace” in Christ.

I can hardly express you just how good of a book this is. You may think that you know what there is to know on this subject, but you would be wrong. It’s one of those paradigm-shifting, life-changing books. It deserves the treatment we gave Lars Walker’s book–buying it on Amazon so as to boost its ranking (currently #227,924) so as to attract more attention to it and help propel it to bestsellerdom. If that should happen, we would see a revival of true Christian piety. Towards that end, I will be posting excerpts from time to time, passages that I have underlined as I have read and re-read this classic in the making.

Have any of you read this already? If so, I’d welcome your testimonial about Dr. Kleinig’s teaching.