If you ever watched the History or Discovery Channel you may have come across progressive theologians or historians who dismiss out of hand the historical accounts of Christ's birth as told in the Gospels. Quite often scholars look down upon tradition, the testimonies of the early Christians and their ancient writings. For some of these intellectuals, it is beneath them to give any credibility to traditions associated with piety and religious devotion. Yet, by confining their judgments within the narrow circle of contemporary scholarship, they deprive themselves of valuable insights which the traditions of the Church do provide. Perhaps, this may be one of the reasons why many people do not know the following about Christmas.
Take for instance the date of Christ's birth. Many scholars have said that it is highly unlikely that December 25 was the actual date of our Lord's birth. One principal reason was that shepherds in the Holy Land did not normally graze their pastures with their sheep during the month of December. Rather, the more likely month for such activity would be during the month of March. But, as we shall see, there are reasons to believe that the tradition of the Church got it right.
For starters, early in the fourth century (300s), St. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, wrote Pope St. Julius, bishop of Rome, to inquire about the date of Christ’s birth. One might think that if anyone was qualified to answer the question it would be St. Cyril himself; primarily because he was the bishop of Jerusalem, just twelve miles away from Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ. Nevertheless, it just so happened that the city of Jerusalem was pillaged in 70 A.D. by the Roman army, led by General Titus, in order to repress an uprising of Jewish zealots. In the process, the Temple was destroyed and its records- along with the census documents – were brought back to Rome only to be filed among the Roman archives. Less than three hundred years later, these documents were evidently still in existence. Interestingly enough, Pope St. Julius was the acting bishop of Rome after Christianity had been legalized. As such, he had privileged access to the Roman archives. St. Julius wrote back to the Saintly Bishop of Jerusalem and assigned December 25th as the birth date of Jesus Christ. “St. John Chrysostom [Bishop and Father of the Church in the 400's] quotes the same authority of the Roman archives as the source of the date of Christmas.”
As regards to the likelihood shepherds overseeing their sheep on a cold December night, we learn the following: It just so happened that right outside the town of Bethlehem was a watch tower called the Migdal Eder. This was a special watchtower that overlooked a pasture of sheep. But these sheep were no ordinary sheep. The sheep at the Migdal Eder were specially groomed for the Temple sacrifice "throughout the year." This pasture land happened to be alongside a road leading to Jerusalem. The Migdal Eder shepherds were trained to keep these sheep unblemished, that is, with no broken bones or any other kind of infirmity. Unblemished lambs for sacrificial offerings, of course, were required by the Law of Moses. These providential circumstances, no doubt, foretold that the Christ-child would fulfill the Messianic role as the “Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.”
Interestingly, it is believed that the Angel announced the glad tidings of the Saviors birth to these special Migdal Eder shepherds on Christmas night. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that after having witnessed the angelic apparition and having visited the baby Jesus in "swaddling clothes," these shepherds got to talking at the Temple when they transported the sheep there. Perhaps, this is why St. Simeon and the prophetess Anna (Luke 2) recognized the Christ-child as the long awaited Messiah when he was presented in the Temple forty days after his birth. After all, the following prophecy from Micah was well known within the Jewish community: “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.”
Tradition also has it that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the age of three to the time she was betrothed to St. Joseph, had lived in the Temple. Just like Hannah did with her son Samuel in the Old Testament, Mary’s parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim, dedicated Mary to the Temple (probably due to their old age). According to an ancient document known as the Gospel of St. James (or the Proto-evangelium), Mary was to spend most of her childhood in the Temple precincts. As such, her holiness and even her vow of virginity could very well have been made known to the likes of St. Simeon and the prophetess Anna who also lived in the Temple (not to be confused with St. Anne, Mary’s mother). Perhaps, the reason why this holy man and holy woman immediately recognized the Christ-child is because they first recognized his Mother!
Some scholars, for their own reasons, have maintained that Christ was not born in Bethlehem but rather in Nazareth. However, the early Christians have something to say about the exact place of Christ’s birth. It was virtually unanimous among the early Christians and Fathers of the Church that Jesus was born just outside of Bethlehem in a cave, also known as a grotto. St. Justin, a Palestinian by birth and a Christian philosopher who lived about a hundred years after Christ, writes that Jesus was born in a grotto near Bethlehem. He said, “Since Joseph did not find where to lodge in the village of Bethlehem, he repaired to a certain grotto near to it; and being there, Mary brought forth Jesus and laid him in the manger, where the Magi, coming from Arabia, found him.”
About fifty years after St. Justin died (165 A.D.) Origin, a Catholic priest and well known Father of the Church, had this to say about the place of Christ's birth: "At Bethlehem is shown a grotto where Jesus was born. The fact is well known throughout the whole country. Even pagans know that in this grotto was born a certain Jesus adored by the Nazarenes." When Christianity finally had become legal in 313 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Constantine, his mother, a canonized Saint, traveled to Bethlehem and found the grotto where our Lord was born. As an ancient Church historian in the third century, Eusebius, relates, the Emperors mother restored it. "Helena adorned the holy grotto with rich and varied decorations. Sometime later, the Emperor himself, outdoing his mother's munificence, embellished this place in truly royal fashion, lavishing on it gold, silver and sumptuous tapestries.” From that time forward, the grotto, later turned into a shrine, became a favorite holy site for pilgrims. Even the famous Saint and scholar of the fourth century, St. Jerome, had visited this hallowed grotto. However, he lamented that it did not retain its original simplicity when Christ was born a little over three hundred years prior to his visit.
In conclusion, although modern scholarship has furthered our knowledge about Christ in many ways, it is, nevertheless, comprised of fallible judgments based on many premises which may or may not be true. One thing is for sure: If we want to know the truth about Christmas and the circumstances of that wonderful night, we cannot afford to ignore the traditions that have come down to us through the Catholic Church. These traditions have a lot neat insights to offer. What is more, many of them are credible. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, as it is read to us from the pulpit at Mass on Christmas Eve and on Christmas day, really did happen the way the Gospels say it did.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.