Let’s imagine you are a beginner in the faith. Up until few days ago you believed in reincarnation, elfs, Harry Potter and smoking pot. But something happened to you and here you are wanting to make things right with God, trying to figure out where to start.
And it so happens that this very important cataclysmic event took place in your life only few days before Christmas. Yay! Right on time as if it were! Or maybe not?
Just how important is Christmas for someone who is seeking to know the Creator and wants to see a spiritual change in his or her life? Your entire being is telling you it’s time to turn away from the old ways and to choose a new way. You begin to read the Gospel of John and “accidentally” find out that Jesus spoke of Himself being the Way, the Truth and the Life. Not only that but thanks to your very knowledgeable friend who has been following threefold.life, you learn that in the beginning the followers of Rabbi Yeshua weren’t called “Christians” and the Jewish sect they belonged to was simply called “The Way”.
You get confused. You want to do what’s right when it comes to Christmas now that you’ve decided to turn your life around by God’s grace.
You’re frantically looking for the “Christmas For Beginners” manual that doesn’t exist.
Relax. You don’t need to do anything special when it comes to Christmas. It’s not a holiday prescribed in Scripture. It’s something people do as a way to keep our traditions and some maybe in an attempt to be spiritual. Our spiritual leaders, pastors and theologians alike, have been going with the flow for far too long and no one dares to ask the inconvenient question about Christmas.
[From a cultural standpoint I’m a huge supporter of Christmas. Militant atheists and Muslims would abolish Christmas in a heartbeat if they had the political power to do so. Thankfully they don’t. In a free society of we need something to change about what Christmas means or doesn’t mean to us, this is entirely up to individuals and church bodies to discuss, not some crazed militants telling us what to do with a gun pointed to our heads.]
Back to our story.
First of all, dear beginner, the most important thing that could happen between you and God has already happened. You responded to the prompting of the Spirit in your heart, you drew the line and you chose a new path. You desire to know Him, to follow Him and to grow in Him. This is what counts the most. This is what it’s all about when it comes to making the Lord smile as he sees at yet anther soul given to seek Him and to serve Him.
You responded to the Spirit’s work in your heart and mind and you shifted lanes. You once were lost but now you’re found. No, not perfect. Just found. And placed onto some very different, new tracks, moving in a new direction. You are now a new creation in Jesus (Yeshua).
But what is a beginner to do with Christmas?
Here are some ideas however you need to determine what you need to do depending on your circumstances.
The first thing you will need to keep in mind is that Christmas is supposed to be a very family oriented celebration. In God’s economy family comes first. So in light of this, what is it that your family does for Christmas? If it isn’t anything outrageously wrong and against God’s Truth as revealed in Scripture, go ahead and be with your family and enjoy your time with them. Distancing yourself from them in the name of becoming more righteous probably won’t go over very well. The greatest manifestation of God in our lives is the love, grace, patience and joy in our lives. Go ahead and be loving, graceful, patient and joyful with your family. They will probably notice the change and will want to know what’s going on with you. You can then tell them and they will probably listen. No need to blast Christmas as being ungodly. They won’t hear that. But they will listen to you about the new love and peace that you sense now in your entire being. There, you heard the most important part of the Manual.
Shepherds in the winter? I don’t think so.
Jesus (Yeshua) was probably not born in December. How do we know that? Because the Gospel writers tell us there were shepherds who witnessed some amazing things.
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields,” wrote one Gospel writer, “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8).
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible says that, “broadly speaking, weather phenomena and climatic conditions as pictured in the Bible correspond with conditions as observed today” (R.B.Y. Scott, Vol. 3, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1962, p. 625). There are no shepherds in Israel in December, not today – not ever. That’s one argument against a possible December date for the birth of Jesus (Yeshua).
One commentary admits that, “as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up. The feeding of the flocks by night in the fields is a chronological fact, which casts considerable light upon this disputed point” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, note on Luke 2:8).
Censuses don’t take place in December
I doubt censuses take place in December even in our days. But they certainly wouldn’t have taken place in the winter at the time Jesus was born. “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem…, to be registered with Miriam, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son…” (Luke 2:1-7).
Generally a census would take place after the harvest season, around September or October, when it would not seriously affect the economy, the weather was good and the roads were still dry enough to allow easy travel. That’s yet one more strike against a possible December date.
No early Christianity witness
In the first 200 years of Christian history, no mention is made of the calendar date of Yeshua’s birth. Not until the year 336 do we find the first mention of a celebration of His birth.
Why this omission? In the case of the Church fathers, the reason is that, during the three centuries after Messiah’s life on earth, the event considered most worthy of commemoration was the date of His death. In comparison, the date of His birth was considered insignificant. As the Encyclopedia Americana explains,
“Christmas… was, according to many authorities, not celebrated in the first centuries of the Christian church, as the Christian usage in general was to celebrate the death of remarkable persons rather than their birth…” (1944 edition, “Christmas”).
Speculation on the proper date began in the 3rd and 4th centuries, when the idea of fixing Messiah’s birthday started. Quite a controversy arose among Church leaders. Some were opposed to such a celebration. Origen (185-254) strongly recommended against such an innovation. “In the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners who make great rejoicings over the day in which they were born into this world” (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908 edition, Vol. 3, p. 724, “Natal Day”).
During this time eight specific dates during six different months were proposed by various groups. December 25, although one of the last dates to be proposed, was the one finally accepted by the leadership of the Western church.
A summary of the debate on the dates of Messiah’s birth appears in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: “Though speculation as to the time of year of Messiah’s birth dates from the early 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria suggesting the 20th of May, the celebration of the anniversary does not appear to have been general till the later 4th century. The earliest mention of the observance on Dec. 25th is in the Philocalian Calendar, representing Roman practice of the year 336. This date was probably chosen to oppose the feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti [nativity of the unconquerable sun] by the celebration of the birth of the ‘Sun of Righteousness’ and its observance in the West, seems to have spread from Rome” (1983 edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 1983, p. 280, “Christmas”).
Around 200, when Clement of Alexandria mentioned the speculations about Messiah’s birthday, he said nothing about a celebration on that day. He casually reported the various ideas extant at that time: “And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day…, the 25th day of Pachon… Furthermore, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi” (“The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1986, p. 333).
In Rome December 25 was made popular by Pope Liberius in 354 and became the rule in the West in 435 when the first “Christ mass” was officiated by Pope Sixtus III. This coincided with the date of a celebration by the Romans to their primary god, the Sun, and to Mithras, a popular Persian sun god supposedly born on the same day. The Roman Catholic writer Mario Righetti candidly admits that, “to facilitate the acceptance of the faith by the pagan masses, the Church of Rome found it convenient to institute the 25th of December as the feast of the birth of Messiah to divert them from the pagan feast, celebrated on the same day in honor of the ‘Invincible Sun’ Mithras, the conqueror of darkness” (Manual of Liturgical History, 1955, Vol. 2, p. 67).Protestant historian Henry Chadwick sums up the controversy: “Moreover, early in the fourth century there begins in the West (where first and by whom is not known) the celebration of December 25th, the birthday of the Sun-god at the winter solstice, as the date for the nativity of Messiah. How easy it was for Christianity and solar religion to become entangled at the popular level is strikingly illustrated by a mid-fifth century sermon of Pope Leo the Great, rebuking his over-cautious flock for paying reverence to the Sun on the steps of St. Peter’s before turning their back on it to worship inside the westward-facing basilica” (The Early Church, Penguin Books, London, 1967, p. 126).
The Encyclopedia Americana makes this clear: “In the fifth century, the Western Church ordered it [Messiah’s birth] to be observed forever on the day of the old Roman feast of the birth of Sol [the sun god], as no certain knowledge of the day of Messiah’s birth existed” (1944 edition, “Christmas”).
The year of Yeshua’s birth
Yeshua was born while Herod the Great was still living (Matthew 2:1). Wise men appeared in Jerusalem asking about “one who has been born king of the Jews?” Of course, this upset Herod, who had been given the title “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate. Herod talked to the wise men secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared (Matthew 2:7). The wise men then journeyed to Bethlehem and found Yeshua, Miriam, and Joseph in a house (Matthew 2:11) and they bowed down and worshiped Yeshua.
When the wise men did not return to give Herod a report, “Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the wise men. He was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16).
This tells us that Yeshua may have been born two years before the appearance of the wise men and the death of Herod. Herod died the spring of 4 B.C.E. (according to the Jewish historian, Josephus).
So when was Yeshua born after all? Nothing is absolutely certain, because we are dealing with implications and assumptions, but a good guess from the Scriptures and history leans towards the end of September.
So, there young beginner of the life-long journey with the Messiah! What matters is not so much on what date do we celebrate the birth of Jesus (Yeshua). What counts the most is the birth of the new creation in our hearts, souls and minds.