I predict that this year, as in every other year, someone will tell me about the pagan origins of Christmas. They will passionately point out the lack of evidence that Christ was born in December. They will rant about commercialization of the season. They will say all sorts of things to discredit the importance of Advent.
So, this year, as in other years, I will sigh. Then I will go buy presents for my family and friends.
The attitude that produces the distrust of Christmas is, at the root of things, a rejection of the incarnation. It is a sense of disgust at the thought that God became a man; that he didn’t just put on a “man suit” and walk around but BECAME a man.
Jesus got hungry.
Therefore, the spiritual path Jesus offers must necessarily be consistent with the incarnation. In other words, Christianity is human, as well as divine. As a consequence, “spirituality” cannot mean becoming increasingly detached from material things or from physical action. Instead, Christian spirituality must involve the redemption of matter and its use as a spiritual instrument. Consecrated matter is to be received with gratitude, enjoyed and celebrated as God’s gift to his children.
There is, in other words, an inescapable sacramental reality to our faith.
Cut out the ceremonies, sacraments, awe and reverence; the material components of worship and all human ways of expressing spiritual life and you will end up with a philosophy or a political path. You may call the result “Christianity” if you wish, but it will have no lasting grip on the human soul. It will gradually lose its hold on the human imagination. It will die because it never really lived.
Nor is Christianity meant to be an endless repetition of the first century. Otherwise it would be unholy to sing Amazing Grace or to play Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. We would chant the Psalms and read the scriptures from a scroll, just as Jesus and his apostles did.
The demand that we return to the first century is impossible nonsense.
It is also a sin against the gifts God has given through His church for two thousand years
Christianity is not a thing. It is a river of life that flows from God, through the Jewish law and prophets, culminates in Christ, and then flows from Christ into the entire world. It keeps flowing through history, collecting the contributions of God’s people in all times and in all places and carries those contributions toward the end of days. Thus, Christians joyfully receive not only the contribution of Christ and his apostles but the contributions of all who have benefited and been transformed by the work of Christ and the apostles.
St. Francis of Assisi taught us to build a manger scene.
Charles Wesley gave us Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
St. Nicholas gave us the idea of following the example of the wise men by expressing our faith by giving gifts, especially at Christmas time.
If the pagans offer something to the season that doesn’t offend or undermine our message of redemption, who cares? Their gifts are also welcomed.
God sends rain on the just and the unjust. That’s why we may eat corn that God’s rain produces, even if it comes from farms owned by pagans.
If a string of colored lights helps people celebrate the birth of the Lord, why all the fuss?
And yet, the origins of most of Christianity’s sacramental and liturgical life is not pagan at all, but Jewish!
The Jews gave us incense for worship.
The Jews gave us the public reading of scripture.
The Jews gave us the basic structure of the Eucharist. (The traditional Christian liturgy of Communion is simply an adaptation of the Passover ceremony.)
And, yes, the Jews gave us Christmas.
1 Maccabees, chapter 4, tells the story of the first “feast of dedication,” or what we now call “Hanukah.”
The Gospel of St, John, chapter 7, tell us that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, even though it was rooted in the Apocrypha rather than in the Old Testament.
This connection between Hanukkah and Christmas must surely mean something.
Christians have always believed that the ancient Jewish feasts reveal something important and enduring about spiritual life. But for some reason, the feast of Hanukkah is one we often ignore. Perhaps that is because Hanukkah is first mentioned in the Apocrypha rather than in canonical scripture. Or, perhaps, because the New Testament does not say when Christ was born, modern Christians are uncomfortable with the idea that genuine knowledge can sometimes come through oral tradition. At any rate, early Christians seemed to have connected the birth of Christ with mid-winter celebration and their belief has stubbornly resisted the centuries of complaining by frustrated puritans.
Of course, every ancient culture in the Northern hemisphere noted when the days of darkness were about to make a subtle turn toward the light. They all had some form of celebration and ritual to mark the turn.
Many people believe it’s just too great a coincidence that the Lord’s birth should come so conveniently, at the very same time of the year as the mid-winter pagan celebrations.
But that is hardly the point.
Whenever Jesus was born, Christians have always associated his birth with two great spiritual realities: the coming of light and the cleansing of the temple.
Hanukkah is the celebration of the Maccabean revolt against the Greek-speaking Syrians. The Jews drove them out, not only because the Syrians had occupied their land but also because they had defiled their temple. This “abomination that makes desolate,” had inflicted a deep psychological wound on the Jewish people. They felt driven to rededicate the House of God.
As they had fought to regain the city of Jerusalem, the consecrated oil in the temple nearly ran out. In fact, there was not even enough oil to keep the lamps burning. But the lamps burned anyway. For eight days.
After driving out the Greeks, Judah Maccabee led the people to rededicate the temple. When this was accomplished, the Jews regained a sense of God’s presence. The darkness had lost. The lamps were burning.
God’s Temple had been cleansed.
But a greater cleansing was coming. The world had grown dark from a much darker force than that of Syrian armies. The world, made by God and for God, had suffered a long, long spiritual winter. The people who lived in the world, whose bodies had been made to be the temples of the Holy Spirit, had been occupied by an alien force. Evil had defiled the souls of humanity.
Then, “in the fullness of time,” a light suddenly flickered in the darkness and the darkness could not overpower it.
Why was Christ born during Hanukkah?
No one explains it better than Christina Rossetti.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
This year, as in other years, I will put up lights. I will set out candles. I will buy gifts. I will eat with my friends. Then, on December 24th, I will eat bread and drink wine as someone sings Silent Night.
God became a man to cleanse my heart and to rededicate my soul.
I will joyfully receive all the gifts a grateful people throughout history have given that help me honor the coming of Light of the World, God-made-flesh we could well call Holy Hanukkah.