Sunday, December 15, 2013

How Did the Church Determine Christ Was Born on December 25th?


By Rev. W.P. Ten Broeck

"For the Birth Day of our Lord Jesus Christ, which day was unknown until a few years since, when some persons coming from the West, made it known and publicly announced it."

Such is the title of a Homily, preached by St. John Chrysostom on December 25, A.D. 386, in the church at Antioch, of which he was then the Presbyter in charge. Its one intention was to show why the Churches of the East had adopted Dec. 25 as the Day of the Nativity. The argument runs as follows:

"Those things for which Patriarchs formerly travailed in birth, which prophets predicted, and just men desired to behold, — these came to pass and had their completion on this day. Long have I desired to see this day, and not merely to see it, but to see it with such an assembly. This my desire, therefore, is accomplished and fulfilled.

Although it is not the tenth year since the very day became surely known to us, through your zeal, it hath been so celebrated, as if it had been from the beginning handed down. Wherefore he would not err who should call this day both new and old; new, because the knowledge of it hath newly come to us; old and primitive, because it hath quickly become the fellow of those more ancient, and hath, as it were, attained the same age with them. This day, known from the beginning to the dwellers in the West, and but lately brought to us, hath so suddenly sprung forward, and borne such fruit as ye behold; our courts being everywhere filled, and every church crowded with the multitude. Wherefore ye may expect a worthy reward of this your zeal from Christ who today was born. Your loving care of this day is the greatest proof of love to Him Who this day was born.

Of what then do you wish to hear this day? Of what else but the day itself? For I well know that many are even yet disputing with one another about it, some calling it in question, others defending it. On the one hand, some argue against it, as being new and recent; others defend it as ancient and primitive, because the prophets had predicted concerning His birth, and from the beginning it has been clearly known and greatly celebrated by those who dwell from Thrace to Cadiz."

The preacher then proceeds to declare these proofs, by which it might be "surely known" that Christ was born on December 25th.

1. "This Festival hath been everywhere proclaimed so rapidly and hath grown to such a height. That which Gamaliel said concerning the preaching of the Apostles, I might confidently assert concerning this day; that, because God the Word is of God, therefore it shall not only not be overthrown, but every year be more widely observed and more clearly known."

2. "It is manifest that Christ was born at the time of the first enrollment under Cyrenius; and it is lawful for any one who wishes to know accurately to search the ancient records publicly deposited in Rome, and there learn the time of that enrollment. Put what is that to us, it is said, who are not, and never have been there? Listen and be not unbelieving, for we have been informed of this day by those who have accurately examined these things and are inhabitants of that city. For they who have resided there, having celebrated it from the beginning, and from ancient tradition, have now transmitted the knowledge of it to us."

3. "Zachariah was High Priest, and saw the vision, and received the promise of the birth of John, as he was entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. This occurred about the end of September. Then he departed to his home, and the conception of his wife began. When she was in her sixth month (March), the conception of Mary began. Counting thence nine months, we come to the present month in which Christ was born."

These facts are clearly established by this Homily.

1. St. Chrysostom, himself, had not the slightest doubt that Dec. 25 was the true Birth Day of Christ.

2. The Christians, living in Rome, had from the beginning been sure of it, and all the Churches in Europe, from Thrace to Cadiz, had from primitive times observed it.

3. The Christians at Antioch had adopted the day with eagerness, on the authority of some who had come from Rome and made it surely known.

4. The reasons of this absolute conviction were: the hand of Providence was so plainly to be seen in the spread and observance of Christmas Day; they had learned from the Roman archives that the Lord was indeed on that day born; they knew that Zacharias saw the vision in the Temple about the Day of Atonement.

And, forsooth, how can a believer in Divine Providence come to any other conclusion than that the Lord did appoint this day and sanctify it? If the eager and wide spread acceptance of Christmas Day was a valid argument in the 4th century, what shall we say of it in the 19th, when St. Chrysostom's bold prediction has become a prophecy fulfilled? How has Christmas forced itself into the heart of the world and made all men kin? How has its divine aroma secured for it the glory of being the one universal holiday? How has its signal triumph borne witness to its heavenly character? Those who believe, as did Gamaliel and Chrysostom, in God's sovereignty, may well declare, only because it is the "day of God," has it thus mightily prevailed.

It is a curious instance of human perversity that they who base all their belief upon absolute predestination, should ascribe the choice by the Church of the birthday of the Son of God, to haphazard and guess work! If over anything an over-ruling providence has clearly thrown its care and sanction, it is the Festival of Christmas Day. Its theme, its origin, its acceptance, its blessed influences, its unique, magnificent sway — if these are not of the will and work of God, what is there that is? Surely the knowledge of when the Holy One was born was among the things which the Comforter was to bring to the remembrance of the disciples of Jesus. Surely He who so dearly loves His Church would not permit her to miscalculate or mistime His Birth.

But in this matter we are not compelled to place our reliance solely upon God's superintending care of his Church. St. Chrysostom silences the unbelievers of his day by telling them that the reason why Dec. 25 was kept was, that Christians, resident at Rome, had examined the record, there publicly deposited, and had certified that this was the true Christmas. Long ago these records were reduced to ashes by some one of the barbarous burnings of the Eternal City. If, therefore, any one demand to see them, before he will believe, as Thomas demanded to see and touch the wound-prints, they cannot be produced. For most men, however, the statement of St. Chrysostom is sufficient to satisfy them that it was documentary evidence, laid up in the archives of Rome, which had made the Western Christians so sure of December 25th being the birthday of Christ, and brought the Orientals to adopt the same day, as the festival of the Nativity. This was the law and the testimony which compelled conviction and secured uniformity. And in the name of the doctrine of cause and effect, we challenge any lesser cause to produce so vast an effect. There is nothing in the whole range of Christian practice, or Christian usage, which, so peremptorily as Christmas, demands a verdict of warranted title. Nothing, I may add, which so perfectly claims the authority of sensus communis.

The calculations of St. Chrysostom, based upon the ministrations of the father of John Baptist, are Scripturally and mathematically correct, if his statement be true, but many have pronounced it "loose and inaccurate," because Zacharias was not High Priest. Actual High Priest it is certain he was not. Acting High Priest he certainly may have been. For Maimonides, the best of authorities, states that another priest might officiate in lieu of the High Priest, if he were disabled or disqualified. Josephus also makes express mention of a kinsman of the High Priest acting as deputy on the Day of Atonement, in the days of Herod. And the Talmud tells of a mother who saw two of her sons High Priests on the same day; one having become legally defiled. To this custom of substitution, St. Chrysostom must have referred. Nor does he stand alone, for St. Ambrose asserts the same. And these were not men likely to blunder in a question of simple fact.

However, this is not a question of office, but of time. If Zacharias was on duty on, or about, the day of the Atonement, it makes no difference what his duties were. St. Chrysostom believed he was. So did St. Ambrose. Whatever their sources of information, they are competent witnesses to the fact. And it is clear that if Zacharias saw the vision at the time of the Atonement, our Lord was born in December of the year following. While this does not determine the day, it shows that Dec. 25 fits exactly into the scanty notes of time furnished by St. Luke.

This then is the summary of the evidence that Christmas Day is the true Natal day of our Lord. From a very early time, the Western churches celebrated it as such, and never doubted it. The Eastern Churches kept other days, mainly Epiphany, and disputed whether they were right. At last in the bright light of the fourth century, in the days of the giants of the Church, the Western observance gains almost instant and universal acceptance in the East. And when we ask what brought this about? The answer is "the documentary evidence laid up in the Roman Archives." And this "better information" prevailed over prejudice, over long usages, even over the alleged authority of the Apostle St. James. Verily, in all the realms of human thought, it would be hard to find evidence more direct, more unimpeachable, more authentic, than that which goes to prove that Christ was born on Christmas Day.

And now, what doth hinder that the evidence as to our Lord's Birthday should be, without question, adopted.

It is said: "The learned have differed about the day, and therefore we cannot be sure of it."

And about what have not the learned differed? Everything under the sun, and in the sun, and beyond the sun, has been called in question, even up to the Divinity of Christ, or the existence of Himself and of God. Indeed, if we are to accept nothing which has been tossed upon the sea of controversy, we might as well quit all quest of truth, give up all knowledge, repudiate all philosophy, and reject all religion. Alas! how much agnosticism there is in quarters, where one would little suspect it! How often have we heard just such language used as an excuse for rejecting the evidences of Christianity. Do the defenders of the faith realize, as they should, the latent skepticism of some of their own assertions? Methinks I have read of how none of the rulers or scribes believed on Him. Methinks I have heard of an Athanasius against the world. If I mistake not, history everywhere shows that "the learned" have always been the foes of progress and cavillers against truth. This is purely a matter of evidence, and if weight of evidence is of any force, the preponderance in favor of December 25 as the true Christmas is as vast, as is the argument for the Copernican system of the universe superior to that for the Ptolemaic.

It is said to be "almost certain that December 25th cannot be the Nativity of Christ, for it is then the height of the rainy season in Judea, and shepherds could hardly be watching their flocks by night in the plains."

This objection is on a par with that of the King of Burmah, who would not believe there was such a thing as ice, because there was none in his country. A glance at the map will show that the Latitude of Bethlehem is that of Southern Georgia. Its isothermal lines pass through Gibraltar, Madeira, the Bermudas, Northern Florida and Southern California. The average temperature in this belt, in December, is 55 degrees. The "Christmas season" says Schubert, "is often, in Palestine, one of the most delightful times of the whole year." St. Jerome lived in Bethlehem for years, and yet he found nothing in the climate to make him hesitate about believing Dec. 25 to be the Birth Day of Christ. The Churches in and around Palestine never dreamed of such an objection. It was born of the desperation to which the Puritans were driven, to find some excuse for rejecting a Festival, hallowed by the unbroken use of 12 centuries, and would scarce merit reply, were it not that such authorities as the Encyclopedia Britannica, and that of Chambers, have repeated the absurd statement. Indeed, so far from there being any ground for affirming that the shepherds could not have pastured their flocks in the fields during December, their very nearness to Bethlehem is evidence that it was Winter. Only then were the flocks kept among the habitations of men. At all other seasons, they were herded in the mountains and wildernesses.

But, even if the climate of the Holy Land were ordinarily of Siberian severity, it would have nothing to do with the question as to Christmas Day. For this is not a question of usual practice, but of special emergency. Here was a great crowd gathered at Bethlehem. "There was no room in the inn." The necessities of the strangers might well have made it an object for the shepherds to have surrendered their houses, and share with their flocks, for a space, the shelter of some valley. Indeed, why may not their humble home have been the very place which the Holy Family were compelled to seek, and their manger the cradle, where the Infant Jesus was laid; and their high privilege of worshiping Him, their reward for their hospitality.

Surely, if "God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb," it would have been nothing strange for Him to have bidden: "Come, thou south wind: blow up on the garden, that the spices may flow out." In that year, during that week, at least on that night, when heaven stooped to whisper great joy to the listening earth, how could it have been, in any climate, aught but calm, and still, and clear. But let us have done with an objection so frivolous. Verily, it is hard to be patient when one hears the Divine counsels made dependent upon the thermometer, or the outpourings of the clouds.

It is alleged, that the Feast of Tabernacles, in September, was the most suitable time for the birth of Christ. The Passover had its Sacrifice, Pentecost its outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the Tabernacles must have had the Incarnation, since, at that time, the Word "tabernacled in the flesh," and since the ingathering of fruits so aptly represented the occasion of our Lord's coming.

Scaliger is mainly responsible for this view. It has had but few followers. It would scarcely merit notice, had not Bishop Wordsworth lent it his large influence; with strange inconsistency following the Fathers in interpretation of Scripture, and discarding their testimony, as to a matter of fact; taking up a latter day fancy in preference to a clear tradition of antiquity. Yea, running after a new metaphor, and flower of rhetoric, when not even its semblance or hint can be found in the days, when exuberant fancy turned everything into allegory. No patristic lover of similitudes, no medieval mystic, insanely keen to trace out hidden analogies, ever even suggested the fitness of the Feast of the Tabernacles, as the day of our Lord's birth, nor did any sect, or section, of the Church ever adopt it.

St. Augustine, the master of the art of analogy, was, on the contrary, thoroughly absorbed with the fitness of the Winter Solstice, as the time of the Nativity, and presses upon it over and over again. The great Puritan poet also, whose appreciation of spiritual things was superlatively keen, says:

Nature, in awe to Him,
Hath doffed her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathise.

And indeed, how exquisitely do the extremest shortness of the day and its dreariness accord with the condition of the world when Christ was born, and how perfectly does the imminent increase of light symbolize the rising of the Sun of Righteousness. By all odds the natural aspect of Dec. 25 can claim whatever there is of everlasting fitness.

Moreover there was another Jewish Feast, which fell in the month of December, the Feast of Dedication. This was of human appointment. It was the commemoration day of the renewal of Divine Worship, after its forcible suspension by Antiochus Epiphanes. It marked the beginning of a great reformation under Jndas Maccabeus. It was especially honored by our Lord during his ministry. It was literally the day of the new creation for Israel, full with the joyous memory of triumph over evil, and restoration to a new life.

From The Genesis and the Exodus of the Gospel, or The Two Eminent Days of our Lord Jesus Christ, W.J. Boycott, 1889.

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