Christmas. Or the Mass of Christ, as it was originally called. Jesus’ disciples knew nothing about it. Neither did the Patristic Fathers.
The birth of Jesus was not celebrated by Christians until hundreds of years after His birth. Pope Julian was the first to use the word in 345 A.D.
At that time there were two competing religions: Christianity and Mithraism. Because of Emperor Constantine, Christianity won out. They immediately engaged in syncretism. This was the process of incorporating other beliefs and practices into Christianity.
So it was with December 25th. It was the birth date of Mithra, the god of Mithraism. It became the birth date of Jesus.
Helena, the mother of Constantine, arbitrarily established the location of Christian sites in the Holy Land. For example, the location in Bethlehem of the birthplace of Jesus.
I’ve been there. The Cathedral is entered through a small door. At the back of the Chancel is a stairway descending about 20 feet. At the bottom is an ornate altar and a copper star with a one foot hole in the middle. Looking into the hole there is a light about twelve feet below. That is the place where Jesus was born. So it is believed.
Did you know that the Wisemen never came to the manger? The Gospel of Matthew states they came “to a house.” Tradition says there were three magi. Only because three gifts are mentioned: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Again, tradition says they were named: Balthazar (the oldest), Melchior (middle-age), and Caspar (a young man).
Consider the time of the year-December. I’ve been to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in December. It was rainy, snowing and cold. It is comparable to the mountains in December. Hardly the time of year for sheep on a hillside.
There are huge limestone caves in the area that shelter the animals. The time of the manger story is most likely to have occurred in the Spring of the year.
A few years ago a Southern California University had a Christmas display on campus. Several sidewalks were lined with giant Christmas cards-designed by students in the Department.
The winning exhibit was a card with Santa Claus hanging on a cross. It symbolized the commercialism of Christmas. Where does God fit into this crass secularism?
It’s time to wake up to the realities of Christmas. Guizot was a great French painter. One of his remarkable paintings depicts the shepherd scene. The lower left shows several shepherds gazing up into the sky. Dimly portrayed-in the upper right- are several angels, singing. It is so real one can almost hear them.
“Glory to God and peace on earth.” BUT, surrounding the shepherds, fast asleep, are several sheep dogs. They don’t see or hear the angels. The depiction should be obvious.
Too many professing Christians are like them-missing the real message of Christmas. Dan Brown, in his recent best seller, “The Lost Symbol,” speaks of the “potentiality of God within each of us.” In the Bible we find that man was NOT created inferior to God. In Luke 17:20 we are told, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Genesis says we are created in the image of God.
Emmanuel is the real message. “God with (in) us.
A few years ago I was Protestant Chaplain on the Ship Hope in Tunis, Tunisia. Upon arriving there I was asked to preach each week at the Anglican Church-the only Christian Church in Tunisia. Their priest had become ill and went back to England.
On Christmas Eve I participated in three services: at the church, on the ship and with the Catholic priest at the Midnight Mass.
I ended my sermon at the Anglican Church by telling the story of Handel’s great oratorio, The Messiah. Written in 21 days, it was sung for the first time in 1741. The British king was present at the presentation. I reminded them that at the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus, the king stood and the entire audience did the same. This practice continues to this day.
As I began reciting the words, “He shall reign forever and forever, hallelujah” to my amazement, the audience stood. A tribute to the King of kings.
Amen. Selah. So be it.