20 December 2015


A Song of Bethlehem: An Advent Series[1]

IV. Light

John 1:1-5, 10-14

Fourth Sunday in Advent/ 20th December 2015

Monday night, December 21, at 11:49 PM, will mark the winter solstice for our time zone in the Northern Hemisphere.  It’s the shortest day of the year, the day with the longest night. 

It’s here, during the darkest time of the year, that the early Church—very intentionally—situated the festival of Christ’s birth.  No one knows when Jesus was born.  I would wager—but I’m a Presbyterian and don’t play games of chance, but if I did, I would wager—that it wasn't December 25.  If, according to Luke’s gospel, there were shepherds abiding in the fields when the heavenly host showed up and scared life into them, it probably didn’t happen in December, sheep and shepherds wouldn’t have been out in the fields (so I’m told).  Scholars suspect that Jesus was born in either late March or early April.

So, no, it’s not historically accurate to say that December 25 marks the birth of Jesus.  The first Christmas was not in December and there probably wasn’t a lot of “snow on snow/ Snow on snow,” as the carol goes.  And, yet, for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, we associate Christmas with winter and snow and the earth “hard as iron.”  My good friend, Ian Bradley, who teaches theology at the University of St. Andrews, author of many books, including The Penguin Book of Carols, says that the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” based on a poem by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) has for generations done most to suggest that snow covered the Bethlehem hillside when Christ was born.[2]  We connect snow and cold and Christmas.  (It will feel odd for us this week as it’s supposed to be 72F on Christmas Eve.)

So, while it’s not historically true to say Jesus was born on December 25, it’s symbolically true. That is, the first Christians were brilliant to place the birth of Jesus around this time of year, near the winter solstice, when, as the ancients believed, a new sun was born.  The Church, around 350, formally placed Jesus’ birth near the longest night of the year (north of the Equator), among days associated with two Roman solar festivals. 

There was Saturnalia, which started around December 17 and ended on December 23.  The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, the god of agriculture, in the Roman Forum, followed by a public banquet, then private gift-giving, and continual partying.  The poet Catullus (d. 54 BC) called it "the best of days.”  We might say, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”  Saturnalia continued well into the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era.

Saturnalia was a festival of light leading to another festival, the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. The renewal of light, that is, the coming of a new solar year with longer days was celebrated in the late Roman Empire as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun," on December 25.  The festival of Sol invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, took place three days after the shortest day of the year.  This festival was probably related to the ancient religious practices of Mithraism, a very popular religion in the Roman Empire (especially among the Roman legions), which the Empire adopted from traditions in Persia.  Mithra’s birthday was December 25. 

For the earliest Christians, Jesus’ birth was actually celebrated closest to Epiphany, on January 6 (or possibly the 8th January).  “It was only in later days, when the Mithraic cult was being overcome, that the Christians took the 25th of December, the day celebrated by the followers of Mithras as the day of Sol invictus, for their Christmas.”[3]  “To the early Christians, Christmas was the resurrection of the sun, and as late as Augustine [354-430], Christ was identified with the sun.”[4]  Augustine said the mystery of the new-born sun is Christ, “Natalis dies quo natus est dies—Christ is the true day of the sun.”[5]

The church historian Hugo Rahner (1900-1968) observed that, “The Church opposes, the Church dethrones, the Church consecrates and in the Church brings home.”[6]  Opposes, dethrones, consecrates, brings home.  After opposing and dethroning the Roman solar festivals the Church consecrated—or baptized—them and incorporated them into the symbolic world of Christianity.  And in the chronographer’s record for the year 354 we find an important notation for the celebration of two holidays on December 25:  Natalis Invicti (the birth of the sun) and this one: Natus Christus in Bethlehem Iudea (the birth of Christ in Bethlehem Judea).[7]

For Christians, the Unconquerable Sun was Christ “the light of the world” (John 8:12) whose birth is the resurrection of the sun, bringing new life into the world.  “Christ is truly Sol invictus, and his sunrise is a new birth.”[8]  Clement of Alexandria (150-215) referred to Christ as the “Sun of righteousness, begotten before the morning star, giving life with thy rays.”[9] Luke describes Jesus as “the dayspring from on high” (Luke 1:78), a “light to the revelation of the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32).

In a remarkable Christmas sermon, preached in Bethlehem, Jerome (c.347-420), said, “Even creation justifies our preaching and the cosmos testifies to the truth of our words.  Up till this day the days have continued to wane, but from this day onward the darkness grows less.  The light grows, the nights diminish. The day grows greater, and error grows less; up rises truth.  For today there is born unto us the Sun of Righteousness.”[10]

On Friday, we will celebrate the birth of Christ our light.  We read in the sublime prologue to John’s gospel—which I will read here on Christmas Eve, in the dark, relying on the light coming from the Christ Candle—these words, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). 

Light.  Light as source of life.  Christ’s life as light.  Light that allows us to see and be seen.  Life and light, surrounding us and filling us.  If you think of it, right now, we are being bathed in light. We are in the light.  The light from the sun allows us to see, but as we see, right now, we are also in light.  As the psalmist said, “In your light,” O God, “we see light” (Psalm 36:9).  We are in the light of God.

And this light, this life, this presence of God – for God is described as light (1 John 1:5)—shines! Remarkably, the light shines in the darkness!  Did you catch that?  We’re so prone to think dualistically in terms of light vs. dark, of light casting away darkness.  But that’s not John’s understanding here.  That wasn’t his experience of the Risen Christ.  Christ shows us that the light shines in the darkness—which means darkness is never completely dark.  There’s something of God’s light and life present even in the darkest places.  And the good news is that the light of Christ shines in the darkest times and the darkness hasn't power to overcome it.  Christ is Solus invictus. Light unconquerable.

So, while it might not be historically true to say that Jesus was born on December 25, it’s definitely true at a deeper level, it’s true symbolically, theologically, psychologically, it’s true experientially that the light of Christ shines even in the darkest days and the darkness, in the end, has no power over the light, for the light of Christ cannot be defeated.  And, we could say, with Christina Rossetti, that in the bleak midwinter his light shines all the brighter.

Rossetti’s midwinter should not be taken literally.  It, too, is a symbol, a metaphor for an interior midwinter, a life filled with short days, longing for light, longing for life.  It’s a life waiting for something new to be born in her, the birth of new life in the frozen places of her heart.  Rossetti once wrote, “What would I give for a heart of flesh to warm me through, instead of this heart of stone, ice-cold whatever I do!...What would I give for tears! Not smiles but scalding tears, to wash the black mark clean, and to thaw the frost of years…”[11]

She’s waiting for a thaw, for the warmth of fire, the warmth of life.  She’s waiting for  Light to be born again in her, to bring her into a new day, a new life, a new world.

She hopes, like we all do, to be able to give the warmth of our hearts—hearts of flesh, pumping with blood and life and passion—to Christ, the Christ whose light was born in Bethlehem and still shines brightly in the world, maybe all the more brightly in the dark places of our lives and our world. 

This is the good new of Christmas! 

Absolutely brilliant!

[1] This sermon series is designed to complement our adult education series, written by Mary Louise Bringle & Beverly Howard, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: Reflections on Four Seasonal Hymns, Resource for Advent IV. (The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation: The Thoughtful Christian, 2015). This morning we focus on “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
[2] Ian Bradley, ed. The Penguin Book of Carols (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 154-155.
[3] C. G. Jung, Introduction to Jungian Psychology: Notes of the Seminar on Analytical Psychology Given in 1925, Sonu Shamdasani, ed. (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2012), 113
[4]Jung, 113.
[5] Augustine, Sermo 196, cited in Rahner, 151.
[6] Hugo Rahner, S. J. Greek Myths and Christian Mystery (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 146.
[7] Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, I, cited in Rahner, 147.
[8] Rahner, 131.
[9] Cited in Rahner, 132
[10] “Homily on the Birth of the Lord,” cited in Rahner, 149.
[11] Quoted by Jan Marsh, Christina Rosetti: a Literary Biography (New York:  Faber and Faber, 2012), 24.

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