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.
The 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. In 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