How silently, how silently the wondrous gift was given
That God imparts to human hearts the wonder of his heaven.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”
There are competing ideas as to the exact date of Jesus’ birth. For the early Church it was tempting to assimilate the Christian story into the Roman holidays, especially the winter festival known as Saturnalia. On the other hand there is an independent tradition deriving from St. Hippolytus that names December 25 as the birthdate of the Savior.
It’s important not to confuse the noble liturgical commemoration of Christmas with the general merrymaking of the winter festival–a confusion that persists until this day. Like so much in early Christianity the date is imprecise, but we can be sure that the first Christmas celebration grew from the liturgy and its proper celebration of Christ’s birth.
The actual date of the birth of the Messiah went unannounced and uncelebrated, unless, of course, one claims the advent of the three magi, strange Easterners on tall camels bearing them across the Syrian desert or perhaps up the caravan route from Petra. We are told only that they journeyed long, bearing gifts and following His star. Their presentation of the precious gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as far as we know, was brief and austere, with the magi returning home while their story went on to claim a place in the medieval history of Christmas.
Only in its occurrence could the prophetic voice have been justified. The prophet Michah two hundred years earlier had foretold the birth of the Savior in the little town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). And earlier than that, perhaps five hundred years earlier, Isaiah foretold of one who would bear the wounds of his people (42). The great prophets, Jeremiah (31:31-34), Isaiah ( 44:1-9), and Joel (2:28-29) prophesied a new covenant under whose terms God’s people would receive new hearts, their sins forgiven, themselves made fit subjects of the covenant of grace to replace the old covenant–recalled twice in the letter to the Hebrews: “I will be their God and they shall be my people . . . I will be merciful toward their iniquities and I will remember their sins no more (Hebrews 8:1-12; 10:16-18).
Those listening might have discerned that things were coming to a head. The normative prophetic tradition had reached a full stop; a bronze plaque affixed to the temple wall declared: There is now no prophet in Israel. The priest Zechariah, taking his turn at the altar of incense, was warned by the angel Gabriel that his much-desired son was to receive not a family name but the name John. After that an angel appeared to Mary to explain to her that she was to be the mother of the Messiah, true God and true man, but these things she kept in her own heart.
There was the expectation that one was coming who would heal the sick, liberate the captives, and give sight to the blind. On a certain day the son of Mary went to the synagogue in Nazareth, asked for the Isaiah scroll, and read aloud:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
Thus began the revolution in the grace-enabled bearing, sharing, and suffering. and praise, marking the days between Jesus’ reading from Isaiah in Nazareth and the day he hung on the cross in Jerusalem. He could have ordered legions of angels to come to his aid, but he did not. He could have commanded the two swords to free him from the high priests’ officers, but he did not. He could have claimed the title rabbi but he did not. He told his disciples not to construct hierarchies of power as the Gentiles did, but to wash one another’s feet as he had done.
Out of the body of his teaching emerged the principle: it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict wrong on others. Once, only once, he was indignant at the abuse of his Father’s house. Most suitably the sacrament he left us calls us to share in his suffering as well as in his glory, enabling us by grace to share in his life.
Since the early second century the Church has written and spoken as though Jeus had a time and place. He was born in Bethlehem of Judea and crucified under Pontius Pilate. At some point, perhaps in the early third century, perhaps the unremitting pressure from the bodiless, timeless, placeless gnostic connection revived interest in the date of the Savior’s birth.
Not unnaturally, the Church had begun to celebrate the great events of Jesus’ life at times made convenient by the great Roman holidays, though the process remained controversial. The winter festival in December came to be assimilated to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Nine months before Christmas the Feast of the Annunciation marked the appearance of the angel to Mary. Across the Christian year proper liturgical prefaces for the great events of Christ’s life began to find common usages. Gradually Christmas was celebrated with a solemnity that previously had belonged to the Easter festival. Perhaps we will never know the date when Christmas was first celebrated with due liturgical solemnity, but whenever that was it meant that at last Jesus Christ had a birthday.