Monthly Archives: December 2013

Was Jesus Born on Christmas Day?

My wife and I took the kids Christmas light watching last night, December 26. We are always saddened to see so many folks already taking down their lights or leaving them off only one day into the Christmas Season! For the world—and unfortunately many Christians—Christmas is over because Christmas Day has passed. For Catholics, Christmas has just begun because the Christmas season stretches from the vigil of Christmas, on the evening of December 24, until the Saturday after the Feast of the Epiphany. This year that will be January 11th.

It is so fun to be Catholic! Catholics know how to party… or perhaps more accurately… feast! And this is not to mention the fact that I get to keep my Christmas lights up longer… and with the meaning behind it to boot!

With this in mind I thought I would do a Christmassy blog post and answer one of the most common questions I get each year during Advent and Christmas:  “Was Jesus really born on December 25?” Many will claim Christians stole the date of a pagan feast honoring “the unconquered sun god” (Sol Invictus), or some other god, and inserted Christ in its place. Others will say Jesus could not have been born during winter because St. Luke’s Gospel provides:

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night…

It would be “too cold,” the pundits say, for shepherds to keep watch over these flocks at night, if it were late December. It had to be spring, summer, or perhaps early fall, no?

Many others of a “sola scriptura” bent will claim the text of Scripture is silent on the matter so we really don’t know when Christ was born. Any attempt to ascertain the truth of the matter would be purely conjecture and unimportant.

So what gives?

Is Christmas Pagan at its Core?

As my colleague at Catholic Answers, Jon Sorenson, pointed out (among other things) in his blog post of December 16, 2013, there is a very large reason why we can be certain Christmas on December 25 is not a case of Christian thievery: There is no known record of a pagan deity whose feast day landed on December 25 before the advent of Christ. In other words, there was nothing there to steal.

Three popular attempts at “proofs” of pagan feasts from which Christians would have “borrowed,” fail decidedly. First, the claim that “Saturnalia,” or the feast dedicated to the Roman god Saturn, established ca. 220 B.C., was pilfered fails for the simple reason it was originally celebrated on December 17, and later extended to an entire week, ending on December 23. It was not celebrated on December 25th. If you wanted to take over a feast day, you would either want to preempt the feast’s date, or more likely, you would want to use the actual date or series of days in order to supplant it.

The more common attempt to say Christians stole a pagan feast day for their celebration of Christmas centers on the pagan feast of “Natalis Sol Invictus,” (the Birth of the Unconquered Sun). This feast is implied as being celebrated on December 25 by St. Cyprian of Carthage (more likely Pseudo-Cyprian), in De Paschae Computus, XIX, written in AD 243:

O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which the Sun was born… Christ should be born.

In its article titled, “Christmas,” the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia records St. John Chrysostom as writing ca. a hundred years later:

But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December… the eighth before the calends of January [25 December]… But they call it “the Birthday of the Unconquered.” But who indeed is so unconquered as our Lord… ? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice” (referencing a prophecy concerning Christ from Malachi 4:2).

The worship of “the Unconquered Son” would reach its pinnacle in AD 274 when as a reform measure the Roman Emperor Aurelian would reinvigorate the worship of “Sol” on December 25 in order to unify the empire both morally and religiously.

The real question; however, is when the date of December 25 was adopted as the central feast day for “Natalis Sol Invictus.” The assumption that Christians took the date of Christmas from these pagans is highly unlikely for two key reasons. First, this pagan feast was, like Saturnalia before it, tethered to the winter solstice. December 25 is always after the solstice. That would be an odd date to choose.

Second, there is no record before St. Cyprian, or Pseudo-Cyprian, in AD 243 that this feast was ever actually celebrated on December 25 at all. The evidence, in fact, would seem to indicate that it was the pagans who moved this feast to December 25 in order to combat a rapidly growing Christian faith in the Roman Empire that had become radically hostile to it. More on this below:

And finally, there is the “Mithraist” connection. Many claim it was a feast dedicated to the god “Mithras” that Christians absconded. But this argument fails as well. While there is historical evidence that links the worship of Mithras and Sol Invictus (inscriptions on ancient votive candles and ancient works of art), as Sorenson says, “In some cases it appears Mithraists believed that Mithras and Sol were two different manifestations of the same god,” or even, “two gods united as one,” the claim Christians stole a feast dedicated to this god is more easily and readily dismissed.

The problem here is that when Emperor Aurelius reinvigorated the feast of “the Unconquered Sun” in AD 274, there was nary a mention of Mithras at all. It appears the joining of “Sol” and “Mithras” would come sometime later. The connection of Mithras to December 25 would be due to his connection to Sol and would then be moot in considering which came first, the Christian date for the birth of Christ or the pagan feast.

But It’s Cold Outside!

Only a mind tainted by modern convenience would come up with this second argument against a late December birth of our Lord. It would have been “too cold outside” to have sheep or shepherds “out in the fields… by night?”

Really?

In Genesis 31:38-40, Jacob recounts to Laban how he has labored 20 years in order, ultimately, to gain Laban’s beautiful daughter, Rachel:

Have I therefore been with thee twenty years? thy ewes and goats were not barren, the rams of thy flocks I did not eat: Neither did I shew thee that which the beast had torn, I made good all the damage: whatsoever was lost by theft, thou didst exact it of me: Day and night was I parched with heat, and with frost, and sleep departed from my eyes (Douay-Rheims Version).

Notice, Jacob does not say, “When the first frost came, I hurriedly got your sheep indoors as fast as I could.” Why would this be? Well, anyone raising sheep knows you keep them in the fields as long as possible because it is more cost-effective to leave them in the fields to eat free grass and drink from available water sources verses bringing them indoors where you have to hire folks to gather a whole lot of food and water for them to survive and thrive.

Further, Bethlehem is found at 31.7031 degrees North latitude and 35.1956 degrees longitude, which makes it comparable to Alexandria, La., or Albany, Georgia. It has a moderate climate where December is part of the rainy season. December would then be among the very best times of the year to have sheep in the field. There would have been much greenery for them to consume. And rest assured, even though the average temperatures “by night” would have probably been in the 40’s farenheit, an early frost would not send these shepherds scurrying for the comforts of home. If you want to feed your family, you keep the sheep in the fields during the day and you “keep watch over them by night.”

Positive Evidence Christ was Born on December 25

Writing in ca. AD 200, St. Hippolytus gives us an ancient example—over four decades before any mention of a pagan deity being worshipped on December 25—of Christian belief that Christ was born on December 25th:

For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls (Commentary on Daniel, Bk. 4, Ch. 23).

The reference to Adam here is crucial, because in another work titled Chronicon, he argues that Christ was born nine months after the anniversary of the Creation. According to St. Hippolytus, the world was created on March 25, the vernal equinox. Jesus, the beginning of the new creation, would have then fittingly been conceived on March 25 and then born nine months later, on December 25.

In his now classic, Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI uses these historical facts as key to understanding the December 25 date for Christmas:

The claim used to be made that December 25 developed in the opposition to the Mithras myth, or as a Christian response to the cult of the unconquered sun promoted by Roman emperors in the third century in their efforts to establish a new imperial religion. However, these old theories can no longer be sustained. The decisive factor was the connection of creation and Cross, of creation and Christ’s conception (p. 105-107).

The key here is not whether the earth is young or old. It is not even whether St. Hippolyus’s reasoning was correct (and the others I will mention below). The significance here is to note the Christian apology for December 25 had nothing to do with a pagan feast. There is simply zero evidence of any Christian saying, “Let’s take over this pagan feast day!” And more importantly, this apology was given before there is any record of a pagan feast to have been celebrated on December 25 at all.

In a nutshell, what we have in Christian history is an historical fact that Christ was born on December 25, followed by Christian apologists bringing out the deeper meaning behind the historical date.

But What of the Claim That There Were Differing Dates?

It is well-documented that while the West celebrated Christmas from the earliest days of the Christian era on December 25, in some areas in the East especially, it was January 6 (and a few other dates as well). Why the confusion?

It is not clear why January 6 became the date to celebrate Christmas in some Eastern churches. Most likely, it is a later development where the birth of the Lord, the epiphany, and in some areas the baptism of the Lord as well, were contracted into one great feast day. But it is clear that December 25 is the more ancient date and the one that would eventually win the day throughout the world. Only the Armenians today continue to hold to the Jan. 6 date.

Consider these historical facts:

1. St. Theophilus (A.D. 115-181), Catholic bishop of Caesarea in Palestine wrote: “We ought to celebrate the birthday of Our Lord on  what day soever the 25th of December shall happen” (Cited in: Dr. Taylor Marshall, God’s Birthday: Why Christ Was Born on Dec. 25 and Why It Matters).

2. We’ve already seen St. Hippolytus do the same in ca. AD 200.

3. Julius Africanus repeats this in AD 221, in his Chronographai.

4. By the fourth century, there is little doubt in the Christian world as to when Christ was born. St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine and more would begin a symphonic proclamation. For these and other reasons, modern scholar, S.E. Hijmans, admits:

While they (the Christians) were aware that pagans called this day the “birthday of Sol Invictus,” this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas (Hijmans, S.E., Sol, the Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, p. 595).

 To Sum It Up

Perhaps St. John Chrysostom, the powerful fourth-century Patriarch of Constantinople, in a sermon he preached in Antioch wherein he urges the church in the East to adopt the Roman practice of celebrating December 25 as the date for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, sums up best the historical truth of the matter.  And, by the way, he was successful in reforming the date of the celebration in the East. While there were objectors to this practice (and we should note here that this is a practice, not doctrinal), his arguments are telling:

1. He argues that this practice is based on history as known from the time of the historical events.

2. The rapid diffusion of this custom proved its genuineness via the “sensus fidelium,” i.e., the “sense of the faithful” that will not steer the church awry.

3. He then goes to Scripture and shows how Zachariah, the Father of John the Baptist—as High Priest—entered the temple on the Day of Atonement (the Day of Atonement being in September) to perform his priestly functions. It was only then that he received the announcement of John’s conception, which would have made this joyous event fall in September.

Because Christ would have been conceived six months later (according to Luke 1:36, “this is the sixth month with [Elizabeth] that is called barren”), that would have been March. Nine months later comes December.

Problems with St. John’s line of reasoning: The text does not say it was “the Day of Atonement,” nor does it say Zachariah was the High Priest. Scripture reveals him to have been one of “the high-priestly family,” or one of “the chief priests,” “of the course of Abia” (cf. Luke 1:5), one of the twenty-four families stemming from the sons of Aaron who carried out the priestly functions throughout the year (see I Chronicles 24:10), including the “burning of incense” that we see Zechariah offering in Luke 1:9, a task given by God to Aaron in Exodus 30:7.

In defense of St. John Chrysostom, this does not mean it was not the Day of Atonement or that Zachariah was not one of the “High Priests” either. We know from Scripture that by the first century, there were multiple “chief priests” from the family of Aaron, or the “high-priestly family,” that could and would function as High Priest on a rotational basis (see Acts 4:6; John 11:49; Mark 8:31; Acts 4:23).

Interesting note: A nineteenth-century scholar, Friedlieb, in 1887, in a study on the life of Christ, actually traced back the priestly family line (each served a week in the temple at a time in succession) from the time of the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Jewish tradition (from Josephus) says the family of Jojarib was then serving.  Assuming there was no break in the succession over those decades (some call that a bit of a stretch, but given the strong belief of the Jewish people surrounding the Temple and its administration, I don’t think it is that much of a stretch), Zechariah would indeed have been serving at the time of the Day of Atonement, Christ’s conception would have then occurred in March, and his birth, therefore, in December.  Jewish history seems to fit like a glove.

We also have to take into account the fact that the Protoevangelium of James, written in ca. AD 140, records St. Zechariah as having been High Priest as does the ancient Eastern tradition. There is good historical evidence to consider here.

4. Finally, St. John appeals to the Roman archives. He claimed the papers concerning the Holy Family were still there at that time proving when it was that Christ was born, and that those documents prove he was born on December 25. Appealing to Roman archives is something we see St. Justin Martyr do in his First Apology, 34-35, and Tertullian in his work “Against Marcion,” Book 4, chapters  7 and 19.

Even though those archives are not extant, it would have been the height of insanity for St. John to appeal to existing archives as containing the proof of which he speaks knowing his lie to be easily exposed. And this is not to mention the extraordinary man of integrity we are talking about when we toss out the great name, St. John Chrysostom.

Season’s Greetings!

Merry Christmas everyone! And let us all celebrate the greatest gift in the universe, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who—yes indeed—was born on Christmas day!

Mortal and Venial Sin

 

The most common Bible verse used against the very Catholic and very biblical doctrines concerning mortal and venial sin is James 2:10-11:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “Do not kill.”

The argument is made from this text that all sins are the same before God. Is this true?

Two Points in Response:

First, the context of James 2 reveals St. James to have been talking about showing partiality for the first nine verses leading up to verses ten and eleven. In verse one St. James says, “My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.” St. James then goes on to say that if we show partiality, for example, toward the rich at the expense of the poor, we fail to keep what he calls “the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (verse 8). He then says, in verse nine, “But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” This is his lead-in to talking about keeping the commandments.

The point here is we cannot pick and choose who we are going to love as the Lord commands and who we are not going to love. On Judgment Day, we cannot say, “But I loved over six billion people as I love myself, Lord! I only hated that one guy!” It is an all or nothing proposition. In the same way, we cannot say to God on Judgment Day, “But I kept the other nine commandments, Lord!”

The second point I would make here is if you read the rest of verse 11, St. James explains a little more precisely what he means.

For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “Do not kill.” If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law.

He never says anything remotely related to “all sins are equal.” He does not say, “If you commit adultery, you are guilty of murder, lying, stealing, etc.” as if there is no difference between these sins. The gravity of each sin is not his point. He simply points out that if you break any of these laws, you have become a transgressor of the law. Again, I believe he is saying you cannot pick and choose which of God’s laws you will obey and those you will not. You must obey all of them.

What is Mortal and Venial Sin?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides:

[1855] Mortal Sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God… by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, though it offends and wounds it.
[1861] Mortal sin… results in… the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell…
[1862] One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or complete consent.
[1863] Venial sin weakens charity… and… merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However, venial sin does not break the covenant with God. With God’s grace, it is humanly reparable. “Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently, eternal happiness.”

What Does the Bible Have to Say?

Matt. 5:19:

Whoever then relaxes (breaks) one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Our Lord here teaches that there are “least commandments” a person can break and even teach others to do so yet still remain “in the kingdom of heaven.” That is both a good definition of venial sin and perfectly in line with paragraph 1863 of the Catechism. Then, Jesus goes on to warn us in no uncertain terms that there are other sins that will take us to hell—if we do not repent, of course. In Matt. 5: 22, Jesus further says, “… whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” In verses 28-29, he then says:

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.

Clearly Jesus teaches there are some sins that will separate us from God for all eternity and some that will not–mortal and venial sin.

Matt. 12:32:

And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:32, emphasis added).

This statement of our Lord implies there are at least some sins that can be forgiven in the next life and some that cannot to a people who already believed it to be so. That sounds awful Catholic, doesn’t it?

II Maccabees 12:39-46, which was written ca. 125 BC, gives us an excellent historical backdrop that can shed light on the importance of our Lord’s words in Matt. 12:32. As the story goes, Judas Maccabeus and his army collected the bodies of some fallen comrades killed in battle. When they discovered these men were carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear” (vs. 40), Judas and his companions discerned they had died as a punishment for sin.

Therefore, Judas and his men turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… He also took up a collection… and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably… Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.

Whether one accepts the canonicity of I and II Maccabees really doesn’t matter. Whether a person accepts the inspiration of these books or not does not change the fact that they give us crucial information about the faith and practice of the Jews shortly before the time of Christ from a purely historical perspective. The Jews believed there were some sins that could be forgiven in the next life (analogous to what Catholics call venial sins), and that there were some sins that could not be so forgiven (analogous to what Catholics call mortal sins). That’s the historical record.

Some may argue at this point that this text only mentions some sins can be forgiven in the next life, it never says anything about any sins being unforgiveable. And that is true. However, we also know that at least some Jews of the more orthodox bent believed in a state of separation from God, or hell, where sins cannot be forgiven as well. Jesus himself speaks of this in multiple texts of the New Testament, for example, in Mark 9:47-48:

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.

In the latter portion of that text Jesus actually quotes Isaiah 66:24 from the Old Testament as alluding to the existence of hell. And he was not saying anything novel or revolutionary here. According to the Talmud, and many Jewish writings before the time of Christ, as well as Orthodox Jewish teaching today, the Jewish faith has included a belief in a place of eternal punishment for the damned for well over 2,000 years. Moreover, among the Old Testament passages used historically by Jewish scholars, Isaiah 66:24 is one of the most common.

Most importantly, we have to acknowledge that this is the faith in which Jesus and the apostles were raised. They would have been raised to believe there were some sins that can be forgiven in the next life and some sins that cannot be. And it is in this context Jesus declares in the New Testament, as we saw from Matt. 12:32 above.

I John 5:16-18:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that is not a deadly sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not deadly. There is sin which is deadly; I do not say one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not deadly. We know that anyone born of God does not sin, but He who is born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.

Three points:

1. These verses cannot be any plainer that there is such a thing as “deadly sin” and “sin which is not deadly.” That is precisely what the Church means by mortal (sin unto death) and venial (sin not unto death) sin.

2. St. John distinguishes the effects of mortal and venial sin as well. Members of the Body of Christ can pray for someone who commits venial sin (sin “which is not deadly”) and “life” (Gr. – zo-ay, or the divine life of God) and healing can be communicated to him through that prayer. But when it comes to “deadly sin,” St. John tells us not to “pray for that.” This is not meant to say we should not pray for a person in this state of sin at all. Scripture is very clear that we should pray for “all men” in I Tim. 2:1-2. The context seems to indicate that he is referring to praying that God “give [the wounded member of Christ] life” directly through that prayer. Divine life and healing can only come through members of the Body of Christ to other members in a direct way if the person being prayed for is in union with the Body of Christ. For mortal sin, one can only pray that God would grant the grace of repentance to the sinner so that they may be restored to communion with the Body of Christ through the sacrament of confession.

To understand this better, consider the analogy St. Paul uses for the People of God in I Corinthians 12:12-27—the analogy of the physical body of a human being. St. Paul tells us we are all members of “the Body of Christ.” A wounded finger that is still attached to its host body can be healed organically by the rest of the body. That kind of wound is analogous to the effect of venial sin. A severed finger, however, cannot be healed by the rest of the body because it is no longer attached to the body. That kind of wound is analogous to the effect of mortal sin. So it is in the Body of Christ.

3. Just after distinguishing between mortal (deadly) and venial (non-deadly) sins, St. John says “anyone born of God does not sin.” We know St. John could not be referring to all sin here because he already told us in I John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Christians sin. It is clear from the context that St. John is referring to mortal sin here. If we sin mortally, we are cut off from the Body of Christ and are no longer in union with God. In that sense, the one who is in union with God cannot sin mortally. This is yet another clear distinction between mortal and venial sins in this text.

Mortal Sin Lists

We’ve already seen examples of “venial sins” in I John 5:16 and Matt. 5:19, but when it comes to mortal sin in Scripture, there are actually multiple lists of deadly or “mortal” sins in various places in Sacred Scripture. Our Lord himself provides us with several of them in Matthew 15:18-20, Revelation 21:8 and 22:15.  St. Paul gives us the rest in Ephesians 5:3-7, Colossians 3:5-6, Galatian 5:19-21, and I Corinthians 6:9-11.

Any one of these biblical texts makes very clear that the biblical data is clearly in favor of mortal sins, but for brevity’s sake I will cite just one of them (Eph. 5:3-7):

 But immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (than is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them…

According to St. Paul, no matter how “born again,” “saved,” or whatever you think you are, if you commit these sins and you do not repent, you will not go to heaven. That is the essence of what “mortal sin” means.