It wouldn’t be Christmas without the surfacing of the Internet Militant Atheist telling everyone that Christmas is bull’s excrement because Jesus (who didn’t exist, but if he did…) wasn’t born on December 25th, but the date was hijacked by Christians trying to get pagans to accept their new, blatantly false, religion. Never mind that the date as Christ’s birthday has been known from a time of persecution, and for the first 300 years of the Church, the focus was on the death and resurrection, which is the key part of the story. The limited contemporary mentions of the connection between Christmas and the pagan festivities have all the hallmarks of a belief it was a coincidence, or at best providence. The social engineering so eagerly assumed is largely unsubstantiated and smells a little of conspiracy theory, as it comes from a note from the 12th century that refers to why the West took that day instead of the 6th of January, from the perspective of someone in the East. Not exactly an unbiased source, is it? And that’s without pointing out that the date had been set for a long time by then, so the source is weak in that sense too.
A more reasonable explanation is the theory which sees 25th of December as the due date of the Annunciation, which is calculated (and still celebrated on that day) to have been on March 25th. Professor McGowan has gone into more details on what sources are behind this argument, so I won’t bore you all here.
Suffice to say, as I have already discussed with regards to the liturgical year, the exact date isn’t that important: we walk through the life of Jesus and the history of the church in a year, going deeper and deeper every time we walk past the same square on the metaphorical board.
So at Christmas, and for the twelve days of Christmas that lead up to the Epiphany (contrary to what all brands using the traditional song as a marketing ploy had you believe, the 12 days follow Christmas and don’t anticipate it…), we celebrate Jesus’ birth not because it’s Jesus’ birthday but because of what His birth means in the context of salvation history.
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, DRB). A whole church genuflecting in unison at the words in the Creed is a sight to behold. The Nativity is so important because without the Nativity there would have been no Calvary, and without Calvary there would have been no salvation. Still, this is not all that there is to it. While the Gospel of Matthew starts with a genealogy of Jesus that makes clear He had a prime position in earthly royal lines, as He was born of the House of David, the Gospel of Luke puts more focus on Mary, and with her on humility. It starts long before the realisation that the stone rejected which will become the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; Matthew 21:42) was indeed rejected: after a long journey to the place of origin of Joseph’s family, a heavily pregnant Mary could not find place at the inn. Her baby was born in a stable and laid in a manger, kept warm by two humble, gentle beasts. It was not the birth of a king as we expect it.
As a modern independent woman who has a hard time depending on anyone else, and letting people rescue her, and accepting that she can’t do everything on her own, the whole of the Nativity story shakes me to the core. From Mary’s “Let it be done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38 DRB), to the all-powerful God becoming a frail human baby born among the lowest of society, the Nativity is a story about reversing the pride that characterises humanity, and is the origin of our downfall, whether you take Genesis literally or metaphorically. You don’t even have to be a believer to see how destructive pride can be, and how prophetic the words spoken in the Bible on the subject are…you just need a basic understanding of human psychology.
There is both something convicting and something comforting about this story. Convicting because, way more than I care to admit, I find myself caring about things that don’t matter. I count how much I’ve eaten in a day and punish myself for eating “too much” when I probably don’t even eat as much as I think, and I should be grateful I have access to food and the privilege to enjoy it beyond the mere feeding of my body to sustain physical work. I should know that my value and worth rest in Jesus and not in my waistline, and I could be three times my size and I would still be as worthy and as loved, and probably the approval I have sought from my family my entire life wouldn’t come if I was different, and the goalpost would only be moved so that’s a pointless exercise. I should know better than to compare myself to people who seem to have it all together when it comes to career, how to campaign, writing papers and being in a relationship (yes, I have a complex about the fact that everyone posts lovey-dovey stuff on Facebook and I feel like vomiting at the thought of it…).
Comforting because, at the end of the day, even if all of this was true it wouldn’t matter. What we endure today, no matter how big or small, is going to pass. This world, no matter how broken, will be redeemed and restored. The idealised images of the Nativity scenes, with the child sleeping quietly even in the most unnerving circumstances, the adoring parents watching over him, and the angels flying in beauty and majesty wishing peace to all people of goodwill, are a foretaste of what the next life will be. The Victorian focus on a warm domesticity and families getting together is also, in many times, an idealisation: many families are unhappy, whether through bereavement of a loved one or other circumstances. Our idea of Christmas can sometimes be a shadow of this world to come, and the Christmas magic a way to quiet a longing for peace and love. The beauty of the Nativity story is that it happens on three levels: the historical one, when Jesus actually walked the earth. The liturgical one, which is about to happen this Sunday night, and it symbolises our chance to encounter Jesus in the here and now. And, lastly, the prophetic one, which is the salvation of the world.
In a world that prizes a search for happiness and affected optimism, joy is an underrated emotion. Joy is less about external factors, and therefore it lasts longer. It doesn’t need to be topped up all the time by more things that trigger the emotion. Joy comes from within. What is given to us on Christmas through this baby born of a virgin is something that is ours to hold on to come what may in our daily life, and this should bring us joy (I know, however, it’s easier said than done).
The end of the year is the time for new year’s resolutions and new goals. One of mine will be to bring the Nativity story with me in the chaos of my life for more than one day in 365. As one of the best hymns ever written says, “My song is love unknown, my Saviour’s love to me; Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. O who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh, and die?”. Whenever I feel unloved and unwanted, I will turn back to Christmas; to the cold, dark, uncomfortable stable where, whatever time of the year it truly was, the greatest love story ever told began.