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.

False alarms

This Christmas season will be remembered by the Salvageable family as the Christmas of false alarms. It began, not on Christmas Day, but on Sunday December 27th, the third day of Christmas, when the smoke detector in the hallway began to send out intermittent signals that it sensed smoke. This alarm prompted a thorough search of the house—checking all the rooms, even those rarely visited; observing the house from outside, both front and rear; examining all electrical appliances; and even lifting the trap door into the attic to check for heat or smoke. No indication, aside from the alarm, showed any sign of smoke in or near the house or anywhere in the neighborhood. Eventually I set the smoke detector out on the deck, where it rang occasional alarms a few more times before finally settling into silence.

I should mention that the device is not one that needs a new battery every year. It came self-contained, complete with power source, and was guaranteed to last ten years. And, needless to say, the smoke detector is now a few months beyond ten years old.

Two mornings later I heard an odd hum when I got out of the shower. I was concerned at first that something was going wrong with the exhaust fan in the bathroom or possibly with one of the lights. After I got dressed and switched all those off, I could still hear the hum. In short order I traced it to the smoke detector, still out on the deck, and now dealing with moisture from inclement weather. I shook out the moisture, silencing the alarm; then I wrapped the device in a plastic bag and left it on the deck. My plan was to put it into the garbage at the end of the week and then replace it the next time I visited Walmart.

Then the rain came. The bag protected the device for a while, but not for good. Oddly, I heard it at eight a.m.—right after the Christmas carol clocked chimed for the hour. My first thought was that someone in the house had set an alarm to go off at eight, but then I recognized the triple chirp of the smoke detector. So I finally did what had been suggested the previous Sunday—I took the device out to the workshop, broke it open, and disabled it. I had planned to put it, as it was, into the garbage that night to be removed from our property in the morning. But it occurred to me that if our garbage on the curb was beeping, we might worry the neighbors, which could lead to visits from the city police’s bomb squad. Therefore, I disabled the noisy alarm.

This would be the end of the story, but it’s not. Friday night, even as our garbage waited at the curb to be removed Saturday morning, my youngest daughter was told that she may have been exposed to the crisis virus while at work—some of her coworkers had contracted the virus. So she went to be tested on Saturday (locking her keys in the car and needing to be rescued), and I notified people at church and at my workplace that I might need to quarantine. Saturday night my daughter’s test results came back negative, but I had already removed myself from church services this morning. My manager at work had relied my message up the chain of command, but I let him know about the negative result and my lack of symptoms, so I probably will be allowed back to work Monday morning.

These events confirm what I had already been saying—we put too much pressure on the New Year to be a new beginning, an end to our woes from the passing year and a chance for things to be better. None of these events were horrible or tragic, but a few bumps in the road on the first weekend of 2021 remind me that 2020 and 2021 are merely numbers. A new calendar on the wall does not guarantee a better year. And so it goes. J.