Although countless Bible scholars as well as critics accept the birth and death of Jesus Christ as two uncontested facts about his earthly life, the same cannot be said about his supposed date of birth, something almost every expert has practically discarded.
Today’s Christians as well tend to agree with the idea that Jesus was not necessarily born on 25th December, in AD 1. And it is almost certain that this accounts for why over the years, experts from all walks of life have not ceased to hypothesize his actual birth date.
However, for men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the last quarter millennium, who lived under the authority of one of the most unjust regimes since the beginning of time, the date should not be as important as the “good tidings of great joy” which arrived with the birth.
According him: “For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them …from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod…”
For him, the birth of Jesus brought hope to a dying world, especially since man was hopeless, and so the birth itself and what it led to -salvation- should matter more.
This is why most experts insist that people like Professor emeritus of biblical studies, Joseph Fitzmyer, who argued that “…Jesus’ birth …did not occur in AD 1…”, which has thus inspired countless hypotheses like the Deaschen, believed to be written in 243 AD, which puts the birthday on March 28th, Clement, the Bishop of Alexandria (c 215 AD) who decided it was November 18th and Fitzmyer himself who choose September 11th and so on, should not be allowed to take much of our time.
It is true that Saint Mark, who is unanimously agreed to be the earliest gospel writer, having written his book around 65 AD, failed to talk about the date of birth but rather began his narrative with the baptism of an adult Jesus, suggesting that the early followers of Jesus either lacked interest in, or did not know the actual date of his birth.
Granted, it was Pope Julius I who declared 25th December as Jesus’ birthday around 350AD.
It is also true that having converted many pagans, the Universal Church then changed certain pagan festivals like the brutal Saturnalia, which was part of the pagan Winter Solstices festivals, into a Christian ‘Holy Day’ -holiday.
Granted also, in an attempt to replace pagan rituals with Christian ones, the church allowed converted pagans to continue to celebrate their festivals, even though there was “nothing Christian” about these end-of-year, week-long festivals, and the Church named the final day of festivities, which is 25th December, ‘Christ-Mass’ day.
The Church also allowed the first Christmases to be celebrated more or less like the Saturnalia festivities to co-opt most of the new pagan convert in those days, into the fold.
These facts are true, and the reason the earliest Christmases were celebrated with drinking, sexual indulgences, singing naked in the streets and so on, like the Saturnalia that they replaced.
Anti-Christmas celebration advocates of today would be quick to point out that apart from giving gifts, all the other practices that go with Christmas today, mirrors the licentious celebrations we read about in history books.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses for example, on the one hand, insists on not celebrating Christmas “because of its pagan origin” but on the other hand, attend their meetings on ‘Sun Days’, a day which gradually shifted from Sabbath to the first day of the week after the resurrection of Christ.
We know that all the days of the week and months of the year are named after pagan gods. Saturday for example is Saturn’s Day, yet no one thinks of it and all the other days and months as such anymore.
The ideas behind almost all pagan holidays -and in fact most practices in the world today- developed from one ‘pagan’ idea or the other, with its own set of stories. Bottom line is, all these stories have been replaced and forgotten, just as the root that lies beneath the celebration of Christmas is so forgotten that the present meaning does not carry the pagan connotation anymore.
Even all languages and ideas have their ‘pagan’ roots somewhere lost in time, and no one has argued that we should discard them because of that. Should we not view the significance and the new meaning of Christmas in the same light?
Some argue that the essence of Christmas -which is giving- has been lost, and the birth of Christ has been commercialised and corrupted, but failed to explain why, knowing full well that even the world we live in corrupts everything, they won’t throw away their pot because while boiling rice in it, the rice got burnt, or throw away their laptops because someone sent a bad email with it.
Others say it was not written in the bible; that Jesus, even though he asked us to commemorate his death, did not ask us to do the same with his birth. Well, these same Christians use computers, mobile phones, musical instruments and so on, yet I don’t recall where Jesus commanded us to use those things in the Holy Bible.
One may be forced to ask who created all the days in the year in the first place. So what is wrong in taking one of the days Jesus created from a false ‘pagan’ god to celebrate the Creator’s birth? Where is it ever compulsory that we must celebrate a person’s birth on the exact same day he was born? Americans for example, celebrate Washington’s Birthday every third Monday of February, yet the man was born on 22nd February.
Like Dietrich, I believe the date is immaterial and so we should focus instead on the deep spiritual truth that the birth of Jesus Christ symbolises and why it was the most significant of all births, rather than bicker over what date or year to celebrate it or what celebration it replaced.
We should rejoice in the fact that for the briefest of moments in Israel some 2000+ years ago, a young man strode the byways of that desert land, and for 33 years there was the presence of Heaven on earth, so that men felt and caught glimpses of Heaven. And that by his example and message, he showed us that we could through him, call God ‘Father.’ That selflessness rather than the bully-boy mentality can and should dictate the way we interact with one another. And more importantly, he showed us that because of his birth, we could be reunited to God from our fallen state.
Jesus Christ is the very personification of Divinity. He was born at a time when ignorance, superstition, greed, hatred and hypocrisy prevailed upon the land. Purity was forgotten and morality was neglected. In the midst of these conditions, he worked a transformation, which he is still working today, in the lives of people. He gave a new spiritual turn to the lives of men. There came a change upon the land. People started upon a new way of life. Thus, a new era dawned for humanity.
I don’t see a better reason to motivate and inspire celebration, irrespective of the date chosen, than this fact of his birth. And this should evoke deep humility in us because deep spiritual rebirth comes only to the humble, to those who, like a child, open their arms wide, putting all his trust in an adult and desires for the adult to lift him into his warm embrace.
This is the right Christmas attitude.
May the treasures and traditions of Christmas fill your heart with hope and happiness and may the sacrifice of Jesus Christ abide with us all, amen.
Albert Afeso Akanbi is a writer and humanitarian. He has three novels, a number of short stories and articles to his credit. He lives in Abuja FCT, Nigeria.
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