The Story of Christmas
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin…and the virgin’s name was Mary.
In the beginning the greatest festival of the Christian year celebrated the founding event, the resurrection of Christ from the death that was the destiny of everyman until Mary Magdalen, then Peter, then the other disciples saw Jesus, Him alive, walking with them on the Emmaus road, known in the breaking of bread, not an apparition or an idea but so real that Thomas could thrust his hand into his wounded side. The evidence that he lived was given to many; Paul recites the list: “He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (I Corinthians 15:5). Perhaps the author of John’s Gospel was one of these, for he wrote, “The word was made flesh, and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only son of the father” (John 1:14).
Christ’s resurrection had fulfilled the promise of the prophets. Paul had seen that all of human history was directed not toward some political melioration, but toward defeat of the last enemy. Satan had lied. He had told Eve: “You will not die” (Genesis 3:4). And God in his justice had taken from Adam the gift of life, decreeing death for all mankind, but not removing hope from the human heart, so that by the time Jesus came, there was a broad expectation, embedded in observant Judaism represented by Lazarus’ sister Martha, who could say of her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Yet firm though the hope might be, it remained unfulfilled until on a springtime morning Jesus rose from death. This fact, confirmed by Pentecost, made a new world that dispelled the grey stoicism of the best of the Romans and made every life a moral adventure worth undertaking. The fruition of life was life in Christ, whose presence spans time and heaven. So Christians would always celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, in the beginning at a time determined by the Jewish calendar, and so important was the date that the custom of celebrating on the Sunday following that day was energetically opposed in Asia.
What Christians knew about the Lord whom death could not hold was that He was of God, God himself, son of God, but also son of Man and like us in everything except sin (Hebrews 4:15). The battle against those who denied that Jesus was human, those who believed that Christianity was not an incarnational but a spiritual religion, was won after a struggle that lasted throughout the second century. And then because He shared our nature, because He was born, grew, realized His mission, and died on the cross, and was raised to life in glory, the question of His biography, and especially of His birth, came to the fore. The worship of the three wise men was a political event, disturbing to King Herod, pointing to the truth that the baby in the manger was King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Matthew 2:1–12). But the deep circumstances of His birth were known to only one person: she to whom the angel appeared with the glad tidings that she would bear the Son of the Most High. Mary, we are told by Luke, kept these things in her heart (2;19). How Luke knew the story of the announcement of the Angel Gabriel that she was to bear the Messiah we do not know. Perhaps it came from the mouth of the Blessed Virgin herself. But between the time when she was present with the eleven at Pentecost and Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Ephesians about 110, Mary had become the threshold of our salvation, the one chosen by God whose obedience to the impossible made possible the birth of the Lord. Ignatius wrote that three great mysteries, the virginity of Mary, her giving birth, and the death of the Lord, accomplished in silence, but announced by the star, signaled the end of death and the newness of eternal life. Justin Martyr in the 140s picks up the theme that Mary’s obedience had made good the disobedience of Eve, and Irenaeus elaborates this fifty years later.
The first recorded liturgical recognition of the birth of Christ on December 25th was in 336, when it appears as the practice of the Roman Church. In 428, when Nestorius, the archbishop of the imperial capitol, allowed the teaching that Mary bore the humanity of Christ but not the Word made flesh, Cyril, the great bishop of Alexandria, thundered back that Mary bore not only Christ’s humanity but the Word joined personally to human nature, a union not the result of some holy expediency but of God’s determinate purpose of reclaiming humankind for Himself. Mary as the mother of Him in whom human nature was joined to the very Creator was and is fittingly called the Mother of God.
There followed an iconographic recognition of this revealed truth in which Mary was depicted, sometimes crowned as in Revelation 12, often with the Greek abbreviations for Mother of God. In 432, inspired perhaps by the Council of Ephesus, where Cyril’s doctrine became the teaching of the Church, Pope Sixtus III, in obedience to a vision, built the great Chuch on the Esquiline dedicated to Mary, Mother of God.
Now it was inevitable that the celebration of the Incarnation in Bethlehem in the reign of Augustus would be second only to the great Easter festival. Perhaps the December date was selected as a way of supplanting the Roman festival of the unconquerable sun, which naturally fell on the winter solstice. If so this would mirror the Christian practice of taking what was found in pagan culture and lifting it up to holy purposes. Once December 25th was established as the day of Christ’s birth, it would follow that March 25th should be the day of the Annunciation to Mary of message that she was to bear the Son of God, a date happily coincident with the sixth month of the Jewish year mentioned in Luke 1:26, a day, incidentally, that would be New Year’s Day into the sixteenth century. The celebration of the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin was established by Gelasius I on February 2nd, displacing thereby the raucous Roman feast of the Lupercalia, and rounding out the Church’s recognition of the place of Mary.
The Easter celebration in all its glory brings into focus the reality of death and the challenge of life lived in Christ. The Christmas story of the condescension of God and the gift of Mary is one of tenderness, supernatural and extraordinary but seemingly rooted in common experience. But it was at the first Christmas that the story of the salvation of the world began in Bethlehem. The word Christmas of course elides Christ and Mass, the action that still makes Jesus present, which is why Satan hates its sound, why angels sing, and why even those who do not believe keep Christmas.