The Truth About Facts

Icon of the Nativity and Baptism of Christ from Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Austin Texas

It seems that every year some time about December twenty first someone throws down this challenge: You know Jesus wasn’t born in the winter. He was really born in the summer. Christmas is really a Pagan solstice celebration.

I’m not really quite sure what this challenge is supposed to do. Is it supposed to shake my faith? Is the fact that there are other traditions that celebrate their rites at the same time as I remember the birth of Christ supposed to make me doubt the truth of the Incarnation?

I had an epiphany last Friday. After I finished Matins I started reading the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, specifically the section on the Church, and this quotation stood out:

Many people ridicule all religions, or if they accept anything, accept only what agrees with human reason and regard the rest as mythology, like the tragedies of the poets.
–Philip Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession translated by Jaraslov Pelikan

I prefer to be unreasonable. As I noted in my post on the traditions surrounding the feast day of Saint Nicholas, one of the wonderful things about Christianity is its ability to acculturate folk customs and imbue (or baptize) them with a certain grace. The fact of the matter is this: Nobody knows when Jesus was born, but truth be told the Incarnation is remembered and celebrated at Christmas, whether that is December twenty fourth/twenty fifth, or January sixth.

One of my favorite Carols for Gaudete Sunday is The Cherry Tree Carol (this version is by The Seeger Sisters)  in which Joseph gets angry with Mary for her surprise pregnancy until Jesus speaks up from within the Virgin’s womb. (Quite an epiphany for Joseph.)

8. Then Joseph took Mary
All on his left knee,
‘Oh tell me, little Baby, ,
When thy birthday will be.’

9. ‘The sixth of January
My birthday will be,
The stars in the elements
Will tremble with glee.’

In her discussion of this carol Elizabeth Poston writes:

The allusion in stanza 9 to Christ’s birthday is in keeping with the song’s antiquity. 25 December was appointed by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 274 as the festival in Rome of the unconquered sun (natalis soils invicti), celebrations of the winter solstice that were transformed by the Christian church into the festivals of Christmas and Epiphany in which various pre-Christian elements survived. The date of Christ’s birth, near to the Feast of the Passover, is unknown. The first mention of the Feast of the Nativity as being on 25 December occurs in a Roman almanac for Christians of A.D. 354, although Christmas had been celebrated on that date in Rome since at least eighteen years earlier. In the eastern part of the Roman Empire the birth and the baptism of Jesus were celebrated on 6 January, the day on which Christmas is still observed by the Armenian Church. In the course of the fourth century the celebration of Christmas on 25 December was adopted in the east except by Jerusalem. In the west its observance on that date spread from Rome to become general in the sixth century, the two great Christian festivals of winter remaining closely linked in the Twelve Days of Christmas.
–Elizabeth Poston, The Second Penguin Book of Carols (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1970)

This may seem like a reason to doubt the veracity of Christian customs, but as I read on, last Friday, in the Apology I came to this discussion of the date on which Easter should be celebrated:

The apostles wisely admonished …neither to destroy evangelical liberty nor to impose a necessity upon consciences, since they [state] not to be bothered even if there has been a mistake in the calculation. …A difference in human observances does not harm the unity of faith.
–Philip Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession translated by Jaraslov Pelikan

Facts may make us doubt, but the truth is that traditions imbued with grace can only strengthen faith. Truly Jesus is the Unconquered Son; born of a virgin at the turning of the year; adored by Zoroastrian wizards; baptized in the Jordan; the one who, in Cana, turned the water in to wine; the one who overcame death, and hell, and will return.

This recording from Alan Lomax Collection: Songs Of Christmas has Vera Hall Ward telling the truth about Christmas in No Room At The Inn/Last Month Of The Year.

One thought on “The Truth About Facts

  1. Pingback: Music For Advent; O Great | Uncle Frog

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