As you know, holidays can be ambiguous times. For most of us, Thanksgiving was not as happy or festive as it usually is. We may have had turkey, but most of us did not have the traditional gathering with extended family. Holidays can be wonderful, festive, and full of joy and hope, but even in “normal” times, they can also be times of unbelievable stress, great anger, depression and even despair. This is especially true in these days when many holiday celebrations will be over Zoom.
“Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” and “Happy New Year,” express a desire for the time to be joyful, or at least enjoyable, but this year, it may be a little tougher to avoid feeling some of the negative emotions. In the face of surging numbers of people infected with the Coronavirus, many people have said, “It doesn’t look like it’s going to be
a Happy New Year.”
I think it still can be. In fact, I think the New Year has had a pretty good start. It’s almost perfect timing to say, “Happy New Year” since the new year for Christians started on November 29. Remember, on the Church’s calendar, the New Year starts with the first Sunday in Advent. Sometimes it’s good to remember that the Church’s time (and God’s time) is not always the same as the world’s time. We have the school calendar and the legislative calendar and the fiscal year, and many of the things we do are shaped by those calendars. But our deepest life is shaped by the story of God. The Christian calendar is a good way to remind us of that.
The Christian year begins with Advent, a season of preparation. We not only prepare to celebrate the festival of Christ’s birth, but we also, even more importantly, prepare for Jesus’ return in glory. I know, we’ve been preparing for about 2,000 years. But He did promise to return, and He said repeatedly that it could be at any time. Peter also reminds us, “With the Lord, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as a single day” (I Peter 3:8). God’s timetable is not our timetable. Every Advent we pray, “Stir up your power and come, O Lord….” As we light the candles on the Advent Wreath we remind ourselves of the One who was born long ago in a stable and “whose coming is certain and whose day draws near.” Each Advent I pray those prayers more and more fervently because I know that if Jesus comes back I won’t have to mess with wrapping paper and scotch tape. Can I get an “Amen”?
Christmas comes at the end of the secular calendar, but it’s the first big celebration of the Christian Year. However, Christmas was not one of the earliest Christian festivals to be celebrated. In the early Church, Easter was really the only big holiday, along with regular
Sunday worship which was a weekly celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection. The first mention of Christmas is around the year 200 when Clement of Alexandria wrote that certain theologians in Egypt had determined that Christ has been born on May 20. Other theologians from the same time period assigned the date of April 19 or 20. It was not until much later that December 25 was celebrated as Jesus’ birthday.
A common explanation for setting Christ’s birthday on December 25 is that this was the Roman feast of Saturnalia. This was an all-out Roman party with all kinds of excess: food, drink, etc. (This is a PG newsletter, so I won’t get into the “etc.”) I don’t think they had eggnog, but they still managed to have some pretty riotous parties. Since the Christians could not participate in the pagan festivities, so the story goes, the Church decided to have a different celebration, and all of a sudden Jesus was born on December 25. One small problem with this explanation is that Saturnalia began on Dec. 15th or 16th and lasted up to 7 days. We’d still be at least a day or two short of Dec. 25th, but maybe in the general spirit of merry-making that did not matter much.
Perhaps a more likely pagan holiday connection with Christmas is Natalis Invicti, the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. This feast was celebrated in Rome (and other places in the Empire) on December 25, a few days after December 21, the shortest day of the year. As the days began to get longer again, a celebration was held to honor the Sun which was undefeated by the darkness of winter. It didn’t take long before savvy theologians like St. John Chrysostom were appropriating the images to advance Christianity. In the late fourth century, Chrysostom preached, “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord. . .? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the
Sun, He [Jesus] is the Sun of Justice.” The Saturnalia connection may have some validity, but clearly Natalis Invicti and Christmas are connected. Chrysostom actually argued for the December 25th date of Christ’s birth based on other considerations (it’s a complicated argument based on when John the Baptist was conceived), but he was happy to appropriate the language of Natalis Invicti to preach Christ.
Whether we’re marking the end of the year or the beginning, remembering the “Unconquered Son,” can give us encouragement to put the days behind in proper perspective and have hope for the days ahead. Yes, we are still in the middle of a pandemic. It is possible that people we love will die. We will be unable to have the large family gatherings and
festive worship services that we enjoy. We will not be in the sanctuary singing “Silent Night” by candlelight on Christmas Eve.
Nevertheless, Jesus is still in our world, in our lives, and in our hearts. I pray that you are blessed this Christmas season with a powerful sense of the Unconquered Son’s love for you as we are reminded that he came among us as one who was poor and weak. I pray that this year that has already begun will be filled with a sense of “God’s Time” in your life
– time to pray, time to worship, time to love family and friends (even if from a distance for now), time to enjoy God’s good creation, time to celebrate.
Especially in these days of anxiety and uncertainty, it is good to remember that Time – and everything else – is God’s. The Unconquered Son, the One who could not be conquered by Herod’s attempt to kill him as an infant or by Rome’s power to crucify him, still lives among and within us. Jesus is Emanuel, God-with-us. We live not only with him but in him, and he lives in us. This is one way of saying that, if we only realize it, Jesus is closer to us than anyone else, and his love is more real than any other power in the universe. The manger and the cross show us the lengths to which Christ is willing to go to demonstrate his love for us. So, as Christmas approaches, God bless you. The world may seem like it is in tatters. COVID and political strife and economic uncertainty seem to rule the day. For God’s people at the beginning of the first century, it looked like the world was in tatters. Jesus still showed up with the gifts of love and peace and redemption. He still shows up today, and his gifts are just as real and just as meaningful. Merry Christmas.

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