The Date of Christ Birth:
To this day, we do not know for certain the exact date when Jesus was born. On the one hand, St. John Chrysostom (a bishop in the 300’s) used Scripture to arrive at the date of December 25th. According to Scripture, Zechariah was performing priestly duty in the Temple when an angel told his wife Elizabeth that she would give birth to John the Baptist. There were 24 classes of Jewish priests and each class served one week in the Temple. Zechariah was in the 8th class. The Temple was destroyed in the year 70 A.D. Counting back from that, Zechariah’s class would have been serving in the Temple in the first week of October in the year 5 B.C. Since Mary visited Elizabeth when Elizabeth was six months pregnant, St. John Chrysostom concluded that Mary’s visit probably occurred in late March, which would make Jesus’ birth nine months after that, in late December. For St. John Chrysostom, the date of December 25th is based on Scripture and Jewish tradition.
On the other hand, we know from history that Pope Julius, who reigned from 337 to 352, deliberately selected December 25th as the date to celebrate the birth of Christ, not as the date of the birth itself. He did this because December 25th was a huge pagan festival in Rome. The pagans knew that the sun moved southward in the sky until December 21 or so (which we call the winter solstice). The pagans also knew that the sun stopped moving south for three days, and then started moving northward again. This was incredibly important for them, because if the sun simply kept moving southward (without reversing course) then the world would be deprived of sunlight, and therefore, of life itself. And so, the pagans held an enormous festival on December 25th to honor the sun god. Meanwhile, Christians in different parts of the world were celebrating the birth of Christ on different days. So, Pope Julius made a decision. He decreed that December 25th would be the official date for all Christians everywhere to celebrate Christ’s birth. Doing this not only resulted in a common feast day for Christmas, but it also changed forever the feast of the “sun god” to the feast of the “Son of God.”
But on a third hand, Luke’s gospel states that an angel announced the birth of Christ to shepherds while they were pasturing their flocks in the fields. Shepherds in that part of the world did not pasture their flocks outside during the winter months. Taken literally, this would mean that the angel would have appeared to the shepherds in either spring or summer, but not in December. Because of all this, the exact date of the birth of Christ remains a mystery.
This is important. In the Catholic Church, the feast of Christmas is not treated as the anniversary of the day Christ was born. That’s what birthdays are. A birthday is the anniversary of the day someone was born. In the Catholic Church, Christmas is treated as the feast of Christ’s birth. In other words, it’s treated as the birth itself. On Christmas, Christ IS Born.
In the Catholic Church, the birth of Christ is not limited to one specific day centuries ago. That is, on Christmas we don’t mark another anniversary of Christ’s birth. On the contrary, On Christmas the Lord is born. Born today Imagine that.
Merry Christmas, everyone.