We celebrate the day of Christ’s birth on December 25th – is this the real date of when Jesus was born?
The truth is we do not know the exact date, or even exact year Jesus was born. Some believe Jesus was born closer to January 10th. Based on my research for my sermon on December 23rd and my upcoming sermon on the 30th, here is what I learned:
The Year: Our Western calendar was supposed to begin with Jesus’ birth, but the calculations of his birth by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century A.D. are based off faulty information about when Herod died. We know now (based on the Gregorian Calendar) that Herod died in 4 B.C., therefore we know the date of Jesus’ birth was sometime between 6-4 B.C. – we know this because Herod wanted to kill all the children in Bethlehem who were under the age of two (Matthew 2:17) and since Herod died shortly thereafter we know Jesus could not have been born before 6 B.C. or after 4 B.C.
The Day: Jesus’ birth day may be December 25th, but the exact day was not recorded. Christians celebrated Jesus’ birth during a certain time of year that just happened to coincide with the Roman Holiday of the birth of the Roman agricultural ‘god’ named Saturn. This holiday was called Saturnalia and it lasted from December 17th-23rd. During this week there was a festival celebrating the agricultural gifts from the ‘god’ Saturn. Because Christians were given time off during this holiday and because this was the closest holiday to the birth of Jesus, the Christians in the first, second, and third centuries A.D. celebrated Christ’s mass (a mass devoted to Jesus’ birth).
In the 3rd century A.D. a new Roman “Feast of the Unconquerable Sun” was celebrated on December 25th in conjunction with the southern Roman Winter Solstice. This feast celebrated the birth of Sol Inviticus – the Sun ‘god’. In Roman times from mid-December until the new year there were many parties, drinking, excess, and gift giving during this season. In the 4th century A.D. (as politicians and people of prominence became Christ-followers) many interpreted the Old Testament prophecy of Malachi 4:2 referring to the “sun of righteousness” (the Messiah) as being the true unconquerable sun/son and therefore believed December 25th as the date to celebrate Jesus’ birth (this reasoning for why the date is December 25th has been disputed by some scholars).
Regardless of the reasons why – we know that December 25th was officially recognized as Christmas in the Western, Latin Church in the 4th century A.D. and that the Eastern, Greek Church soon followed suit.
Now what about “Epiphany” – what is it and when should we celebrate it?
Epiphany is the 12th day after Christmas and celebrates the visit of the Magi. This holiday signifies the extension of salvation to the Gentiles (you, me, and every non-Israelite). The date is January 6th – last year the date was on a Friday, therefore the holiday was celebrated on Sunday January 8th. This year Epiphany Sunday will be on its official date.
At Grace Church we will be celebrating Epiphany a week early on Sunday the 30th of December as we will be starting a new sermon series on January 6th titled – “Living in EXILE.”