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Why Christmas?

An interesting question came up in discussion at our house a couple of months or so back. Why do we celebrate Christmas as the great time of remembering the doctrine of the Incarnation instead of the Annunciation? (A quick googling tells me that the Eastern Orthodox Church does refer to the Annunciation as the Feast of the Incarnation.) After all, Jesus was incarnate for nine months before Christmas. Yet there is no doubt that liturgically we especially think of "God with us," and "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" in connection with Christ's birth.

And certainly, the angels seem to agree about the importance of Jesus' birth. They came to the shepherds to announce the birth. "Today is born unto you a Savior which is Christ the Lord."

I think the key to the importance of celebrating Jesus' birth lies in one of the major purposes of the Incarnation. St. John says, "No man hath seen God at any time. The only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." (John 1:18) And just a few verses earlier, John says, "And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." (emphasis added)

This is emphasized in the lovely carol called "Of the Father's Love Begotten." One line says, "And the babe, the world's redeemer, first revealed his sacred face."

Until Jesus Christ was born, only the Virgin Mary had intimate experience with him. And even she had never seen him. It was in being born that he was first revealed to the world and thus began to fulfill the purpose of revealing God to mankind at large. Thus a child was born unto us; a son was given unto us. Unto man and unto the world.

What do our readers think?

Comments (6)

This reader thinks you've bogarted the answer, Lydia. :)

I think also that there is something about the fact of God's having exited the Tabernacle and made Himself manifest in the world. God was always "with us," even here on Earth, inasmuch as He dwelt in the Temple. The priests could attest to His presence, as John did of Christ's coming into the world. But never had the Lord stepped outside the darkness of the tabernacle, full into the halls of creation. Which is more or less what you said, I guess.

It is interesting, though, that there is no mention of angels rejoicing at the Resurrection, which is when the Enemy was confounded beyond redress.

The angels got to roll the stone away at the Resurrection and tell the women about it--a couple of different times, too, apparently, once to the group of women and once to Mary Magdalene. I guess they figured they'd done the chanting-in-multitudes-of-the-heavenly-host-with-brilliant-light trick already and wanted to do something different this time around. :-) More seriously, Jesus seems to have had a pretty specific focus after the Resurrection of meeting only with his followers and, at least at first, only at certain times. (We don't know what-all happened during the rest of the forty days, as only a few of the meetings are narrated in detail.) This fits with the heavenly decision to have the angels make an announcement of the Resurrection in a more restrained fashion.

A quick googling tells me that the Eastern Orthodox Church does refer to the Annunciation as the Feast of the Incarnation

But that would be to confuse the two things, which were not simultaneous. The angel spoke in the future tense: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy one which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."

We tend to identify Christ's conception with the Annunciation, but even those were separate events. There is no Feast of the Holy Conception (or whatever one would call it), which in fact was the Incarnation. And why not? Maybe because as an event it was completely invisible. Or more likely your answer is correct. I've been drinking homemade eggnog and can't be sure I've addressed your question.

Perhaps William's eggnog has obscured his answer to such an extent that I'm missing his point, but I think he is entirely and completely wrong.

First, the Orthodox are entirely correct to call the Annunciation the Feast of the Incarnation, because that is in fact when the incarnation occurs. Gabriel speaks in the future tense because when he is speaking, the incarnation has not yet occurred, because Mary has not yet consented to the angel's still-being-proposed offer. Christ is conceived in the Virgin's womb at the moment of her fiat, not at the moment of the angel's salutation.

Furthermore, the Annunciation historically is a big deal, at one time just as much or more so than Christmas. It does not make for the perfect example, since prior to 1970 one genuflected at the et incarnatus est every Sunday, but in the modern Mass one bows (the consilium's mania for bowing is a topic for another day) on every day save two: Christmas and the Annunciation. Then one still kneels. The Feast of the Annunciation marked the beginning of the new year in many civil jurisdictions until the beginning of the eighteenth century.

But there are some difficulties with keeping the Annunciation as grand a festival as Christmas. One, it often falls during Lent, so even if the Solemnity abrogates that day's penitential character, it is bracketed on either side, and thus generally has not had an octave. Two, it is overshadowed by Easter, the larger festival, whereas Christmas falls at the opposite end of the year when a party is in order and not otherwise to be found. Three, the Western Church has generally viewed the Annunciation as a feast of Our Lady: the East apparently observes Her role in the Incarnation separately on another day and views the Annunciation as a more solemn feast of Our Lord.

Finally, I think Sage's point has merit: the Annunciation is an important moment in salvation history, but the moment is hidden. The Nativity, on the other hand, is a great epiphany, and its noteworthy and public character is demonstrated by the momentous events that accompany it. Likewise, the Church's extended celebration of Christmas has developed so as to more fully display the mystery of Christ's incarnation and birth: thus, we follow the feast of the Nativity with the feast of St. Stephen, proto-martyr, then with that of St. John, the evangelist who speaks most eloquently on the incarnation, then with that of the Holy Innocents (and then Thomas a Becket, but I'm not sure how to fit him into Christmas mystagogy).

Whether the Incarnation took place at the exact moment of Mary's fiat in the scene of the Annunciation is a mildly interesting question. In Christian iconography and tradition, that is taken to be the case. Hence, the iconography in paintings of the Annunciation shows the Dove descending (into her ear, interestingly!) when she is talking with and receiving willingly the message of the angel Gabriel. This represents the conception.

Having been raised Baptist, this was all news to me in graduate school when I started studying such paintings and literature. In terms of strict biblical literalism, the Bible doesn't _say_ that she conceived at that very moment. We know it had to be very close to that moment, however, because (IIRC--I don't have Luke open in front of me) it does say that she arose with haste and went into the hill country to Elizabeth her cousin after the Annunciation, and by the time Elizabeth greets the Virgin Mary, Mary is pregnant. At least, I think we probably should so interpret Elizabeth's words to her.

Perhaps William's eggnog has obscured his answer to such an extent that I'm missing his point, but I think he is entirely and completely wrong.

How can you think I'm entirely and completely wrong if you've missed my point?

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