(This post was originally published back in March. Here it is again for the Christmas Season.)
Have you ever heard that the date for Christmas (December 25) was selected to coincide with a pagan holiday? Don’t believe it. The calculation is actually based on Scripture.
Every year on March 25, the Church celebrates the day when the Angel Gabriel announced the conception of the Christ to Mary. March 25 is exactly nine months prior to December 25. To see how the date for Christmas was calculated, first we need to go back to September 25, when the Angel Gabriel announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah. (Remember, during the Annunciation to Mary, Gabriel tells Mary that her cousin Elizabeth has also conceived, and Elizabeth is in her sixth month. See Luke 1:36. September 25 is six months prior to March 25.)
September 25 fell at the end of the Jewish season of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. (The date for the Day of Atonement falls on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. It varies from year to year, falling in September or October.) During the ten day period prior to the Day of Atonement, Jews amended their behavior, prayed, repented, and gave to charity, in order to seek forgiveness from God.
According to Luke 1:9, Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary to burn incense. The Jewish priests could only enter the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement. (See Ex. 30:7-10.) Gabriel says to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.” (Luke 1:13)
So, here is the timeline:
September 25 – Gabriel announces the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah.
March 25 (six months from September 25) – Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus to Mary.
June 24 (nine months from September 25) – the Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist.
December 25 (nine months from March 25) – the Church celebrates the birth of Jesus.
Yesterday was the Second Sunday of Advent, so my husband lighted two candles after I read the prayer. In another week, he will light three candles, and finally during the last week of Advent, he will light four candles every evening until Christmas.
While the days are growing shorter and darker outside, the light is still increasing. Inside, my table-top trees light up the house. Outside, every evening more and more Christmas lights appear in the neighborhood. While we await the Nativity of Jesus once again, He is already here.
Today, I visited a deserted chapel on my morning walk with my husband. I had tried to visit the chapel a couple of times during ‘social distancing’, but someone else was always there before me. This morning, finally, the chapel was empty. I went to visit the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. But was He really there?
I looked for the red sanctuary candle. Yes, it was lit. He was there. I was reminded of the ending of the great English novel, Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh: “…There I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.”
A couple of decades ago while on a family visit to Wisconsin, I stumbled upon a lovely crucifix in an antique store. The entire piece is hand-carved from a single piece of olive wood, and it’s only six inches tall. I couldn’t believe my luck when I bought it for a song! Over the years I have owned several crucifixes, but this one has always been my favorite. I marvel at the skill of the unknown artist, but even more at the artist’s obvious love for the Crucified Lord, as demonstrated in the detail and beauty of the carving. I have no idea how old it is. Perhaps the artist is already in heaven, smiling down every time I take it off the wall and hold it in my hands while I say my prayers.
Ever since my conversion to Catholicism, I have been fascinated by the mystery of the Incarnation, regardless of the time of year. Christ among us as true God and true man – this mystery seems completely illogical, and at the same time, a stroke of Godly genius. How else could we, who had lost our original connection to God, find him again unless we had a human person, who was also God, to bridge the gap.
One Christmas morning a few years ago, I had a startling realization. Prior to that, I had unconsciously believed that God gave us his Son in the Incarnation, only to take him back in the Ascension. That morning, I suddenly realized that God gave Jesus to be our very own forever. How can I understand the magnitude of this gift? Now my prayer is that God will give me to Jesus to be his very own forever.
My husband is a practical fellow. When we walk, he watches the ground to make sure I don’t trip while I am gazing at the tops of the trees and the sky. I can relate to the disciples who couldn’t stop looking at the sky after Jesus ascended and disappeared from view. As usual, the angels had to explain things, and now they remind me that my feet are still on the ground. There is still work to be done here.
“….Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 NRSV, Catholic Ed.)