December 23, 2011

What you may not know about Christmas

By Joe Tremblay *

If you ever watched the History or Discover 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 (300'), 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 12 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 300 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 25 as the birth date of Jesus Christ. “St. John Chrysostom [Bishop and Father of the Church in the 400s] 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 Savior's 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 40 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 exceptional 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 spent a lot of time in the Temple (not to be confused with St. Anne, Mary’s mother). Perhaps, the reason why St. Simeon and Anna immediately recognized the Christ-child when he was presented in the Temple 40 days after his birth. They recognized him because they first recognized his Mother!

Joe Tremblay writes for Sky View, a current event and topic-driven Catholic blog. He was a contributor to The Edmund Burke Institute, and a frequent guest on Relevant Radio’s, The Drew Mariani Show. Joe is also married with five children. The views and opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily reflective of any organizations he works for.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.