A date for Christmas

The Bible does not tell us when Jesus was born. The fact that shepherds were watching their flocks at night may hint that Jesus was born in February, when lambs also are born. This would be fitting, since Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But the shepherds’ nighttime watch could have happened any time of year, as the shepherds worked to keep their flocks safe from thieves and predators.

Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus on December 25. Traditionally, that date is the first day of Christmas, a twelve-day season that continues until January 5. Often Christians complain that the world has stolen Christmas from the Church, turning a sacred holiday into a secular orgy of commercialism and worldly excess. Others say that the Church first stole Christmas from the world. In the northern hemisphere, celebrations of the winter solstice were common. Days had been getting shorter and nights longer all summer and autumn; after the solstice, days begin increasing in length. Winter weather continues for a few more weeks, but spring is coming. It’s a good time for a party, although in modern times any excuse will do.

Some Christians become defensive about the holiday and insist that the Church created this holiday apart from pagan or worldly suggestions. Complicated calculations are offered to demonstrate that the birthday of Jesus was known (or assumed) from the date of his death on the cross, a date known to be near the spring equinox because it happened at the time of the Passover. Supposedly, this calculation was done early in Church history and produced Christmas celebrations among even the first Christians. But I have read the writings of the Church Fathers, and I cannot find any discussion of the celebration of Christmas before the fourth century of the Christian (or Common) Era. Moreover, that discussion is based on a misunderstanding of a verse in the Bible, a misunderstanding that the earliest Christians probably would not have made.

A priest named Zechariah was burning incense in the Temple when he saw an angel. This angel promised Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, one who would be an important messenger in God’s plan. (That son is known as John the Baptist.) The birth of Elizabeth’s son was a miracle, because she and Zechariah were beyond the age when people generally become parents. This miracle repeats that of Isaac, who was born to Abraham and Sarah when Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety.

Six months later the same angel visited a young woman, probably about fifteen years old, in Nazareth. The angel again announced a miraculous birth. This time the miracle would be conception of a son without the participation of a human father, because Mary was a virgin betrothed (promised or engaged) to a carpenter named Joseph. The angel specifically told Mary that Elizabeth, her relative, was six months into her pregnancy. Mary visited Elizabeth, then returned to Nazareth. John was born to Elizabeth, and six months later Jesus was born to Mary.

Because Zechariah was a priest performing priestly duties in the Temple, some Christians assumed that Zechariah was offering the annual sacrifice for the Day of Atonement in the Most Holy Place within the Temple. Luke does not mention the sacrifice of atonement; he says only that Zechariah was burning incense. Nor does Luke call Zechariah a high priest; he notes that Zechariah was taking his turn to burn incense in the Temple, along with other priests. But, misreading Luke’s account, those Christians deduced that the announcement of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and John’s coming birth must have been in September, at the time of the Day of Atonement. Therefore, the announcement to Mary six months later would have been in March, John would have been born in June, and Jesus would have been born in December. These two announcements and two births fall near the two equinoxes and two solstices, allowing for celebrations near these events among Christians (although the announcement to Mary, dated to March 25, is easily overshadowed by the greater celebration of Easter the same time of year).

Does it matter when Jesus was born? The earliest Christians didn’t seem to consider the date important. Christians celebrate, not just a birthday, but the miracle of the Incarnation, the fact that God became human to reconcile humans to God. That miracle merits celebration at any time, but why not observe it after the winter solstice, when the days are becoming measurably longer? As Jesus is the Light of the world, the Light the darkness can neither comprehend nor extinguish, so Christians celebrate their Savior at the same time that other people celebrate for other reasons. J.

The clam in the middle of the storm

I have been absent from WordPress for several days, not because of a deliberate social media fast (a practice which meets with my approval), but simply because of the business of the season. In addition to the usual Advent and Christmas activities, some extra events have also been occupying my time. For one thing, I will be speaking this week at the funeral of a long-time church member; she asked me some months ago to speak at her funeral, and I promised to do so, neither of us knowing at the time that this would happen during the latter part of the Advent season. When her son called to let me know she had died and to repeat the request on behalf of the family, his words were tangled (as happens to most of us at stressful times). He wanted to say that the family would be honored to have me speak, but he kept saying instead that it would be an honor for me to speak at his mother’s funeral. Which it is, in fact, but I know what he was trying to say.

Last February, in the midst of a record-breaking spell of winter weather, two of my daughters moved into a new apartment. Most things have gone well for them in their new place, but this month they began finding that water was leaking into their apartment, soaking the carpeting and pooling on the harder floors. The apartment management sent repair specialists to find and fix the leak, but in a larger building with several units that task is harder than it is in a single-family house. As a result, we have been housing refugees this month—three cats and a dog, although the dog was only here part of the time. The dog managed to complicate matters, though, by breaking through a window because a neighbor of my daughters was walking his dog; this meant that my daughter’s dog needed time at a veterinary clinic, resulting in family being out on the road in the midst of several, tornado-bearing thunderstorms Friday night. All went well for my family, though, and we pray for those who suffered greater losses in those terrible storms.

Christmas decorations are going up in and around the house, although we seem to have more electrical problems than usual this year. The blue lights we string across the front of the house had segments that would not light. I suspect that many households that use this kind of decoration buy new strings of bulbs every year and do not try to store them and reuse them as we do. Then we had similar problems with the lights for the Christmas tree indoors. I was able to get one of three dysfunctional strings working. Another has a segment that will not light but is bundled together and hidden on the back side of the tree. The third one that refuses to work is being kept as a source for replacement bulbs, as a fair number of bulbs are burnt out. I assure them that I can relate. I shopped online for replacement bulbs, but they are hard to find; the only ones available include the bulb but no socket, meaning that replacement involves threading the tiny wires of the new bulb through the old socket. Cannibalizing the extra string clearly is the better choice.

And I have messages to prepare for other audiences, which is why WordPress sinks lower on my list of priorities. I was reading one message this weekend before sharing it and discovered a typo that Word’s spellcheck failed to notice. Speaking about the Biblical encouragement to rejoice (and I say it again: Rejoice!—Philippians 4:4), I described how that word seems sometimes like a commandment, like the commandment not to be anxious. Both these messages, I said, are promises and not commandments. We should not put extra pressure on ourselves, trying to rejoice, trying not to worry. Instead, we understand that Jesus has already fixed our problems. For that reason, we rejoice and do not worry. Speaking of the “peace at the center” that comes from having Christ at the center (of our lives and of our holiday observances), I wrote about the clam in the middle of the storm. There is potential for a great message based around that picture, but I haven’t had time to write that message; I simply changed the word “clam” back to “calm.”

As time permits, I hope to finish my series of world history posts, wrapping up the Victorian Age and carrying through the twentieth century—World Wars, the Great Depression, post-modernism, and globalization. But I have already created an outline for yet another book, one which will focus on philosophy, especially questions about truth and how we know what is true. Among other things, this book will acknowledge the possibility (popularized in the Matrix movies) that we are living in a simulated world and not in reality. Given current scientific understandings of general relativity, subatomic physics, quantum mechanics, and the nature of time, the simulation theory is not far-fetched; moreover, it may mesh nicely with a creationist, young-earth perspective. But that writing will not appear until next month.

Blessings to each of you in your Advent observances. J.

When a wise man lost his head

[This post is a report from three years ago. I’m glad to say that the wise man in question has kept his head intact through the ten-and-one-half months of storage and is doing fine on display.]

When I was a child, my parents did not play Christmas music until Thanksgiving Day. That tradition continues in my household. On the other hand, Thanksgiving weekend always saw the appearance of the ceramic manger scene, another tradition I have continued. The manger scene belongs to the twelve days of Christmas, not to the season of Advent. Moreover, the manger scene is historically inaccurate, with the wise men arriving in Bethlehem at the same time as the shepherds. (Matthew 2 records that the wise men found Mary and the child (not newborn infant) in a house in Bethlehem.) The church I attend has solved the later problem by placing the wise men and their camels across the chancel from the manger scene with shepherds, sheep, and other barnyard animals. But my display at home has them all: Jesus in the manger, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, and assorted animals.

Most of the scene consists of ceramic pieces made for the family by my mother-in-law some years ago. But two of the angels are Lladro figures. Their colors nicely match the style of the other figures, so we have always included them in the scene.

These ceramic pieces all survived the Cinco de Mayo fire of 2017. Our insurance company paid to have them professionally cleaned. They came back individually wrapped in bubble wrap, each surrounded by a layer of paper. I’ve chosen to keep the same wrappings, although prior to that they were wrapped only in tissue paper and never came to any harm.

But this year, when I checked to make sure I had the right box, the top figure made a clanging sound as I unwrapped it. Seeing that it was one of the Lladro angels, I feared the worst. But when I got the box inside and fully unwrapped the angel, I saw that she had dropped her harp. It had been glued to her hands, and the summer heat must have softened the glue. No harm done, so far.

I continued unwrapping figures and placing them into the scene. Then I came across a piece that had broken, in spite of the bubble wrap and paper protection. I gasped or sighed, I don’t recall which. A voice from the bedroom called, “What’s broken?” I answered, “A wise man lost his head.”

A wise man lost his head. It happens sometimes. In this case it was a clean break and can be repaired with glue. Other times when a wise man loses his head, the damage is not so easily fixed. Insults shouted in a fit of anger are not easily erased. False charges and accusations do not easily fade, even after a sincere apology. One might argue that a truly wise man or woman would never fly off the handle in such a manner, but these things happen. We try to be wise; we try to watch our words. On some occasions, though, we fail.

Christians live under forgiveness. Christ has atoned on the cross for all our sins. Christians also share forgiveness. Jesus told his followers to forgive, not seventy-seven times, or even seventy times seven times (490), but an imaginary number that might as well be translated “seventyleven times.” We remain sinners, living in a sin-polluted world. From time to time, even the best of us lose our heads. Thanks to God’s grace, forgiveness is the glue that puts our heads back where they belong. J.