Monday, November 26, 2012

A long time ago in a manger far, far away.....

I have no argument with the Pope's newest book, but I have to say, the idea that we don't know the date of Jesus' birth ain't exactly news:

In the Apostolical times the Feast of the Nativity was not observed....It can never be proved that Christ was born on December 25....The New Testament allows of no stated Holy-Day but the Lords-day...It was in compliance with the Pagan saturnalia that Christmas Holy-dayes were first invented. The manner of Christmas-keeping, as generally observed, is highly dishonorable to the name of Christ.
Increase Mather, 1687.  He was wrong about that "Saturnalia" connection, by the way; but it has become a staple of Christmas criticism among the cognoscenti, who have no idea where it came from, but are convinced it's true.  It isn't.

Mather is right, otherwise, and his observation predates historical Biblical criticism by about 200 years.   Christmas itself wasn't observed by the church until the 11th century, with the first appearance of the "Christ Mass."  The date of birth is highly conjectural (most scholars agree we don't know when the birth occurred; the Gospel accounts are too different, and written for very different reasons than historical accuracy.  The idea of such accuracy is, in fact, a Greek notion, not a Hebraic one.  Greek culture suffused the culture of Palestine in the first century (when the Synoptic Gospels were written), but not so much as to make the Gospel writers consider themselves heirs to Herodotus.)  Matthew's nativity story places Jesus firmly in line with Hebrew history and prophecy; Luke's nativity story places Jesus firmly at the bottom of the Palestinian social ladder, down among the shepherds and the ptochoi.  Only Matthew's story, by the way, rests on the idea of a "virgin" birth.  The two accounts, in fact, are reconcilable on only three facts:  the names of the parents, the place of birth in Bethlehem, and the baby's name:  Joshua, or, in the Greek transliteration:  Jesus.

I think the animals at the birth is a bit less poetic license than the Pope does.   But the take away from this seems to be:  now that the Pope has said it, it's true.

Maybe we should ask Sen. Rubio if the theologians are still arguing about it.

 (it's a caganer, by the way.  You could look it up.)


  1. When I read a few quotes from the pope's new book, my reaction was also, "Surprise, surprise!"

    The Caganer is a delightful idea, one which I'd never heard of before now. I was pleased to see "Perceived humor" listed first in the traditions, because I burst out laughing when I saw the pictures. Another that I like is "a counterpoint to so much ornamental hullabaloo, so much emotive treacle, so much contrived beauty."

    I will steal the pictures and the link to the info on Caganers and use them sometime soon.

  2. Well, I knew it couldn't have been Irish porcelain. Had to look it up, never heard of it before.

    Interesting stuff about the history of Christ Mass. It's something I never got around to reading up on. If I still went there, I'd go test the reaction re. Saturnalia at E----ton. I'll bet there would be howls of anger and resentment as well as a tide of blogban myth.

  3. [Ah, the internet version of the caganer: the spammer ^ ]

    Very interesting! I noticed the Wiki article mentioned royalty caganers, and even an Obama caganer . . . but is the Pope Benedict caganer something new? [Would putting it in an official Catalan nativity scene be seen as daring?]

  4. Mimi--

    The first caganer I saw was shortly after Obama was elected the first time. I was a bit perplexed, then. Now I think they're funny as hell.


    Yeah, funny how much "fact" people who are informed "know" is actually just anti-Catholic spew from the Puritans who wanted to distance themselves from Rome in every way possible. The whole "Saturnalia = Christmas" is clearly of that ilk. But, you know, truthiness! And the persistence of gossip.


    I'm guessing Benedict is a new one. Then again, the Obama figure came out almost immediately after his first election. So they may be coming out as soon as world figures are deemed important enough.

    I suppose it's a kind of status thing, even....

  5. What do we make of Christmas being celebrated on the 25th of December? Certainly not Mather's Saturnalia connection (Saturnalia was over by the 25th, according to Wikipedia). But Hanukkah is also celebrated starting on the 25th (of Kislev). And while the modern Jewish celebration of Hanukkah really is an echo of Christmas, the (admittedly very minor) celebration of Hanukkah predates Christmas. But does the significance of the 25th day of the month predate them both?

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  7. I have always found the following from the old 1913 Cathlic Encycopedia intriguing:

    "All Christian antiquity (against all astronomical possibility) recognized the 25th of March as the actual day of Our Lord's death. The opinion that the Incarnation also took place on that date is found in the pseudo-Cyprianic work "De Pascha Computus", c. 240. It argues that the coming of Our Lord and His death must have coincided with the creation and fall of Adam. And since the world was created in spring, the Saviour was also conceived and died shortly after the equinox of spring. Similar fanciful calculations are found in the early and later Middle Ages, and to them, no doubt, the dates of the feast of the Annunciation and of Christmas owe their origin. Consequently the ancient martyrologies assign to the 25th of March the creation of Adam and the crucifixion of Our Lord; also, the fall of Lucifer, the passing of Israel through the Red Sea and the immolation of Isaac. (Thruston, Christmas and the Christian Calendar, Amer. Eccl. Rev., XIX, 568.) The original date of this feast was the 25th of March. Although in olden times most of the churches kept no feast in Lent, the Greek Church in the Trullan Synod (in 692; can. 52) made an exception in favour of the Annunciation. In Rome, it was always celebrated on the 25th of March."

    Unsaid but obvious is the connection between the two dates, that December 25 comes exactly nine months after March 25. The explanation assumes, of course, that commemoration of the Nativity postdates commemoration of the Annunciation, and that the former was dated with respect to the latter. But it makes as much sense as any explanation I've every seen.

  8. Interesting, all of this information. I'd assume that the Easter cycle was considered more important than the birth narrative. The older western chant would lead toward that conclusion by both number and quality.

  9. I'd assume that the Easter cycle was considered more important than the birth narrative.

    It was. I'm not up on the historical particulars, but the Easter narrative was central to Christian worship and calendars for centuries before anyone thought to pay attention to the Nativity. All four gospels have the former, only two report the latter.

    And, IIRC, Christmas celebrations started in the Egyptian church, where the idea of the birth of a god (i.e., the pharoah) started anyway. So they'd have picked up on that as important long before anyone else did.

  10. I won't do a post on this, but New Advent is my go to resource, and helps correct some of my information from earlier posts.

    First, "Christmas", or the "Christ Mass," doesn't appear earlier than the 11th century; 1038, to be exact (or as exact as we can be). That's the word, however; not the observance of the nativity.

    The early church fathers despised the observance of "birthdays" as a pagan idea. Which lends more credence to the appearance of them in Egypt before anywhere else. The first Natal observances were in Alexandria in the 2nd century (so far as we know, of course). The idea then was that Christ was born on March 28, "because on that day the material sun was created." Interestingly, Epiphany was celebrated on what is now January 6. So that may be a very, very old date for that feast, and even a reason (?) for the later dating of Christmas Day. At the end of the 4th century, in Cyprus, Jan. 6 became the natal day. Chrysostom, on the other hand, has Rome observing the natal day of 25 December as early as 388; other records push that date back to 354.

    That was apparently the date of a solar feast, Natalis Invicti; so this could be the connection between a pagan and a Christian celebration. The bulk of the information there is really rather complex, and being presented in a scholarly manner, is almost overly complete. Certainly there were many sources for the celebration, which only became one central source after many centuries. So it's ultimately a matter left to conjecture.

    But it's got nothin' to do with Saturnalia.....

  11. In my Roman Catholic elementary school we were taught that the greatest event and feast day was Easter rather than Christmas, but as kids we didn't buy it. What were chocolate eggs, soon consumed, compared to toys that lasted? And how much more appealing was the Baby Jesus compared to a grown man risen from the dead?

    In my later life, I've come to think the children have it right, but perhaps not for the right reasons. The Incarnation seems at least equal to the Resurrection, if not a greater event. That God came to be one of us, to live a human life like us, with all the sorrows and joys associated with being human, to show us how to live a human life, is every last bit as awesome and amazing to me as as my faith that Jesus lives still. And think about it: without the Incarnation, the Resurrection would never have happened.