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Christmas: The day as an icon

Nativity%204.jpg As secularists and neo-Puritans alike delight in pointing out, there is no strong reason to believe that Jesus was born "in the cold midwinter." Those silly traditional Christians, celebrating a holy day that is nowhere commanded to be celebrated in the Bible, probably has been attached by mere human convention to the historically incorrect time of year, and wasn't even recognized by the early church until, what?, 200 to 300 years after the time of Christ.

Yet, surprising as it may seem, God actually does care about human conventions. Does God care what you do with your wedding ring? Indeed, he does. For God knows that human beings, being made in his image, are by nature iconographers. We cannot help it. We habitually, irresistibly surround ourselves with symbols and images. We need symbols to remind, to prompt, and to move us. And the visible symbols make a difference to our bodies, our minds, and our souls.

This, presumably, is why God, repeatedly throughout Scripture, tries to harness the human tendency to make symbols. He tells his people to do physical, temporal things for remembrance. Set up these stones. Eat this feast on this day of this month. When your children ask you, "Why do you do these things?" be ready to tell them of the great things God has done, of which these are the markers. In the New Testament, God is still at it, now bringing symbol into the realm of Sacrament: Do this in remembrance of me. And the apostles and their followers begin, almost instantly after the Day of Pentecost, to meet and break bread on the first day of the week, when the Son burst forth from the darkness of the tomb. We find no record that God explicitly revealed to the Apostles that they should begin to worship on Sunday, but they did so naturally, as a matter of course, in celebration of the resurrection.

For man is a creature of the body and of the rhythms of the body, the seasons, and the years. And the God who made the body knows that we need to be reminded, reminded, reminded, in the cycles of the year, like the beats of the heart.

If we do not remember Christ's birth on some one day, we will not remember it on any day. Conscious remembrance and thanksgiving, for a time-bound creature, are activities that must occur at a particular place and time.

Would it be nice to know on what day, or at least in what time of the year, Our Lord was born and to connect our festival with those known seasonal facts, as we do with Easter? Certainly. To someone as historically and evidentially minded as I, it would be very nice. It would be highly satisfying to have the kind of solid historical evidence for the season of Christ's birth that we have for the Passover season of his death and resurrection.

But even though we don't have that knowledge, it does not follow that what the Gospels tell about the circumstances of Jesus' birth is a tissue of pious embellishment. Far from it. St. Luke's reference to the census is perhaps the most famous, and contentious, historical tie-down, but whatever final conclusion you come to concerning the nature of the census and the meaning of Luke's terminology, there is no question that Luke himself intended it to be a literal, historical explanation of the presence of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Luke's love of such specificity is one of his most salient qualities. Compare chapter 3:1-2; the convergence of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod and Lysanias, and Annas and Caiaphas has been independently confirmed. And buried in the midst of Matthew's account of the flight to Egypt, complete as it is with a very Jewish typological reference to "out of Egypt have I called my Son," is this one little detail--that Joseph was afraid to return to Bethlehem when he learned that Archelaus was now ruling Judea. As pointed out by Esteemed Husband, the report of Joseph's qualms about settling in Bethlehem fits perfectly with what we know of Archelaus independently.

Thus the omission of indications of the time of year is just part and parcel of the normal messiness of literal, recorded history. Some things get mentioned; some things don't.

In the absence of specific information on that point, Christendom has made a season of days in the deep of winter into an icon of this literal, historical event: The birth of Jesus Christ to a Virgin, who laid him in a particular manger, at a particular time, because there was no room for them in a particular inn.

With the church throughout all the world, let us adore him together.

Merry Christmas to my colleagues and readers at W4!

Comments (6)

If we do not remember Christ's birth on some one day, we will not remember it on any day.


Merry Christmas to all our W4 friends.

"And of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end."

Thanks, Paul. Merry Christmas!!

On this second day of the octave of Christmas, a Merry Christmas to all!

Thanks, Lydia, for the thoughts above. Excellent, as usual. I would not be surprised, in the end, to find out that the Church ended up using the right day to celebrate Christmas after all. Not because someone correctly worked it out from tiny and obscure indications in the Bible and early tradition, but because God simply decided that if we were going to celebrate it on ONE day, and the determination as to which day was not critically tied to any theological thesis, then we might as well land on the actual day, and so He subtley pushed whoever it was into picking the right day out of the hat. He has certainly done stranger things than that in ecclesial history.

Whatever day is the true day, Christ was conceived of a specific woman, the Virgin of whom Isaiah spoke, and He was born to her some 2020 years or so ago on a specific day determined by God from all eternity, at Bethlehem.

In my small amount of research on this I learned that the Eastern church celebrated January 6 *only* for a while as the day of Christ's birth. It looks like the 12 days of Christmas may be a kind of super-octave to bring the East and West days together. I'm glad that we don't have to have a big after-Christmas let-down, and I wish I could get more people to keep singing *at least* the Christian carols (we can leave out the secular ones) for twelve days, culminating with "As With Gladness" for the Wise Men for Epiphany.

A (continuing) Merry Christmas to all of my colleagues and readers here at W4!

Lydia -- what a wonderful post this year. I've been thinking about this post in conjunction with some wise thoughts on the meaning of 'the war on Christmas' from the writer Jonathan Last. What strikes me about your post is how you focus on the meaning of Christmas as symbol -- of course that symbol can be theological and liturgical which helps Christians focus on important ideas, or as you so eloquently put it:

For man is a creature of the body and of the rhythms of the body, the seasons, and the years. And the God who made the body knows that we need to be reminded, reminded, reminded, in the the cycles of the year, like the beats of the heart.

If we do not remember Christ's birth on some one day, we will not remember it on any day. Conscious remembrance and thanksgiving, for a time-bound creature, are activities that must occur at a particular place and time.

But Last's concern is with Christmas as a moral and political symbol and and he makes a strong case that the Left is very much aware that their efforts to banish Christmas from the public square is part and parcel of their efforts to banish religion from public life:

Christmas is intrinsic to the American character, both in the gauche, free-market sense, and also the sense of self-image—everyone wants to believe himself to be charitable and peaceable and kind. You can’t beat Christmas with a stick.

As such, it’s the last fortress of Judeo-Christian ethics in America. It’s the Alamo. Though that’s not really an apt metaphor, because the Alamo is where brave men fought and died. Christmas is actually a redoubt from which we can rebuild the culture. You might even call it a rock. A mighty fortress. A sure foundation.

The left understands this. Which is why they declared war on it.

The scope of this “war on Christmas” was popularized over the years by our professional culture warriors. Every December Bill O’Reilly used to point to examples of private citizens and government officials doing their best to push Christmas into the closet. But just because it was Bill O’Reilly was hawking the war on Christmas doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

There was the governor of Rhode Island rechristening—if you’ll pardon the expression—the Christmas tree in the state house as a “holiday tree.” There were the billboards put up by the group American Atheists urging children to “skip church” because Christmas is a “fairytale.” And from sea to shining sea, towns and schools have been bullied into airbrushing Christmas from the public square. Just to give you a sampling: There’s the elementary school in Oklahoma that banned any “Christmas-themed songs” from its “December Play.” Then there’s the town in North Carolina that decided to take down a nativity scene it had displayed in front of the courthouse every December for generations after a couple atheists complained about it. A town in Indiana had a similar problem with its nativity scene and declined to take it down—so they’ve endured lawsuit after lawsuit from the ACLU and a group called the “Freedom From Religion Foundation” ever since. Please understand that this is just a thimbleful of seawater from a vast, roiling ocean.

Last's entire piece is excellent on the history of the Left's assault on religion in public square -- very much worth reading this Christmas season if a bit depressing:


Anyway, that takes us a bit far afield from the purpose of Lydia's excellent post but the idea of Christmas as symbol was related so I thought I'd share.

Looking forward to 2018 and hopefully more frequent blogging :-)

Jeff, that's a good piece by Last. It's fashionable to sneer at the very idea of a war on Christmas, but of course it is real, and it is blatantly political. Chesterton once said that a person who in his life had known a real Christmas could never again look at a mother and child in the same way. That is possibly why the anti-realists about the nature of mothers and children hate Christmas.

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