The Light in the Darkness

In a recent post on his excellent blog, Joel Miller confronted the scandal many make in our contemporary culture about the historical veracity of images and accounts of Jesus’s birth. An Orthodox Christian, Joel has much to say about western Christianity from an eastern Christian point of view. That goes for his most recent piece, which responds to an Atlantic magazine article (“Your Christmas Nativity Scene is a Lie,” December 13, 2015) “exposing” the historical inaccuracies of nativity scenes throughout America during the holiday season.

nativity-iconThe author of the Atlantic article “reveals” to his large audience that the depiction of an ox and an ass in many such scenes is not supported by the “evidence” of the Gospel accounts, but, as Joel Miller notes, totally misses the very scriptural foundation (Is. 1:3) for these animals regarding the Messiah whom so many rejected. The point is, an icon is not a photo snapshot. It is a revelation or proclamation of a reality that includes but goes beyond the immediately visible. “It’s curious,” Joel observes, “that people who at times snicker at wooden literalism become so woodenly literal.”


What I would like to add here is a similar challenge to the oft-encountered dismay among western Christians in learning that the date on which we celebrate the Nativity may not have been the actual day of the year when Jesus was born. For some it is nothing less than a scandal, but only when a modern literalism has choked out the symbolical grandeur of ancient Christianity.

There is no way of definitively analyzing the decision making process of the Christians who established the holiday of Christmas seventeen hundred years ago, but it is to my mind quite conceivable, given the evangelistic character of early Christianity, that December 25 was chosen as the birth of Christ because it had originally been observed by pagan Romans as the day of the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun).

Doing so would not only have appropriated a pagan holiday for the worship of the one true God (and after all, the Messiah was called the “Sun of righteousness” in Mal. 4:2). It also revealed the cosmology of the early Church. This is because December 25 represented the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, and the Christ, the “Light of the World” (John 8:12), had come into the cosmos (Greek for “world”) to bring it back into union with him. Celebrating Christmas on December 25 was not an historical statement about the date on which Jesus was born so much as a cosmological statement about the salvation of the world.

I am a native of sunny Southern California, but I now live near the northernmost great city in the Lower Forty Eight, Seattle. (I like to phone my friend who lives in Fargo, North Dakota and tease him by asking how things are “down there”). As we approach ever closer to Christmas Day, Puget Sound gets really dark. And I lived in Saint Petersburg, Russia for a couple of years where the darkness of winter is even more extreme. There is something marvelous about the Church celebrating the incarnation of God at the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere. As the world surrenders itself to the physical darkness, the Church proclaims that God has won a victory over its spiritual darkness. All that is dark and unrighteous in human beings has now been redeemed by the one who is Light and Righteousness.

There is a hymn sung in the Orthodox Church at the evening service of vespers. It is called “Gladsome Light,” and I have read that it is considered the oldest known Christian hymn outside those contained in the New Testament. Its text is the following:

O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father, heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ. Now we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening. We praise God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For it is right at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise, O Son of God and Giver of Life, therefore all the world glorifies Thee.

This hymn about Christ as the gladsome (or “joyful”) light of the world–the “light of evening”–is a good example of the cosmology of the early Church. two-candlesIn fact, it is sung exactly at that moment (usually set in parish churches for about six o’clock in the evening) when the sun is setting. In other words, it is a daily experience of Christmas. As the atmospheric sun sets, all the candles in a church temple burn brightly to symbolize the presence in the world of paradise, of the cosmological Sun himself, Jesus Christ.

Image Credits: Joel Miller and Exaltation of the Cross Orthodox Church

2 thoughts on “The Light in the Darkness

  1. Fr. John,


    Thank you for this blog and your podcasts. I eagerly await new material from both of them.

    What’s your opinion on the Dec 25th date being considered by the Church to be the actual date of the Birth of Christ instead of a pragmatic pastoral move? Sanidopoulos at Mystagogy has just posted a very informative article; here is a lengthy excerpt from his conclusion:

    ‘Based on the above hermeneutical calculations of St. John Chrysostom, it has been demonstrated that Zechariah, the father of John the Forerunner, according to the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, offered incense in the Holy of Holies according to the prescribed ritual for the feast of Atonement, as a High Priest. In detail of this ritual, he entered the Holy of Holies alone, without being visible to the people, and he offered incense on the golden altar of incense, which is in between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (Holy of the Holies). Therefore this could not have been a daily offering of incense in the Holy Place, like all the priests would do on a daily basis, rather all the relevant facts point to the feast of Atonement, which was between September and October, for it was on this day only that the High Priest would be alone in the Sanctuary. Immediately after those days of Atonement and Tabernacles and upon the return of Zechariah to his home, Elizabeth conceived and became pregnant (cf. Lk. 1:24). Six months later, in March, the Son and Word of God was conceived by the Theotokos and the Holy Spirit (cf. Lk. 1:26). From this is determined nine months when Christ was born, a total of fifteen months since John the Forerunner was conceived, which falls in the end of December, in agreement with Church tradition.

    The Testimony of the Church of Rome

    In the same homily of St. John Chrysostom, “On the Day of the Birth of Our Savior Christ”, he also invokes the testimony of the Church of Rome which celebrated the Nativity of Christ on December 25th, and this is why the homily bears the subtitle: “Which was then still uncertain, but a few years ago made known and proclaimed on the part of ones who came from the West.”

    Concerning this testimony, Chrysostom says: “It is clear that He was born during the first census. And it is possible for the one who desires to know exactly to read the original codices publicly stored at Rome and learn the time of the census. So what, someone says, is this to us – who are neither there nor present? But listen, and do not be unbelieving, because we have received the day from those who know these things accurately and who dwell in that city. For the ones living there, having observed it from the beginning and from ancient tradition, now have themselves transmitted the knowledge of it to us.” The Saint goes on to explain how divine Providence caused the soul of Caesar Augustus to initiate the first census of the ecumene in order to fulfill the prophecies for the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, even though the Theotokos lived in Nazareth, and thus the power of God is revealed: “Did you notice, beloved, the economy of God, the way He manages His (purposes) through unbelievers as well as believers, that strangers to piety might learn His might and power.”

    The Orthodox Acceptance of Hostile Interpretations

    Despite the above evidence, typical is the opinion of the preeminent contemporary Greek liturgist John Fountoulis, who writes: “With the epiphany of false gods and emperors, the Christian Church opposed this with the epiphany of the true God and King Christ, the true theophany. Also the worship of the sun, which conquers during the winter solstice the darkness of night, was opposed with the worship of the true sun, Christ, who rose, as the prophet Isaiah said, in a world sitting in darkness and shadows.” He speaks of how the feasts of Christmas and Theophany originated to replace feasts of the sun and the celebration of the winter solstice. It was by Christians replacing these winter pagan feasts, that the date for the Presentation of Christ forty days after His Nativity and the date for the Annunciation nine months before the Nativity, and even the conception of St. John the Forerunner in September originated. Thus, everything in our immoveable calendar for Professor Fountoulis begins with “Sol Invictis” during the winter solstice of December 21-22.”

    To the contrary, such misconceptions ignore historical facts and the biblical and patristic tradition to explain the origins of our liturgical feasts. That such a revered professor and liturgist would hold such opinions reveals that even Orthodox are under an academic/theological captivity that directly opposes Orthodox tradition, whether we are ignorant of the facts or not.’

    Fr. John, even as a Protestant I actually believed (hoped) that the early Church believed Dec 25th to be the actual date, even if it was mistaken. Is there any patristic basis for the “conversion of Sol Invictus to Nativity” theory? And do you know the origins of this theory?

    Again, your labors are a great blessing to me and are greatly appreciated.

    in ICXC,


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