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Monday, 10 December 2012 21:35

Joy to the world

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The earliest record we have of Christians celebrating the feast of the Natale (birthday) of Christ is 354CE. Before that, Christians had just one great feast, the annual Pasch or Easter. 

One widely-held theory is that the feast of Christmas originated to provide a counterbalance to the pagan feast of the “unconquered sun” celebrated in the Roman Empire during the winter solstice when people looked to the return of the sun after the shortest day of the year, which according to the Roman calendar was December 25. By also claiming this date, Christians proclaimed Jesus Christ as the Invincible Sun and true light of the world.  

In Egypt and Arabia, where a different calendar was used, the winter solstice was celebrated on January 6.  The churches of the East also countered this celebration with a Christian feast but called it the Epiphany.  In the Greco-Roman world epiphaneia meant the appearance or manifestation of a divine being.  

So in Rome, the manifestation of Christ as the light of the world was marked by celebrating his birth on December 25, while in the East, it was marked on January 6 by significant events in Christ’s adult life that manifested his true identity as God-with-us (Emmanuel). These events were essentially his baptism in the Jordan (“This is my beloved Son”) and his first miracle at Cana.

By the end of the fourth century the majority of all the churches accepted both feasts. 

Today, the West marks the birth of Christ and adoration of the shepherds on December 25, and it marks the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem on January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany. 

The East also marks Christmas on December 25 while January 6 is now the feast of the Baptism of Jesus to the exclusion of other earlier “manifestations” of the mystery of the incarnation. 

The West celebrates this feast of Jesus’ Baptism also, but on the Sunday following January 6.  This feast also marks the end of the Christmas season in the Roman Rite.  Hence “Christmas Time” will end on January 13th, 2013 – and not on Boxing Day as the commercial world would have us believe!  

Christmas is essentially an adult feast since it marks the beginning of Christ’s redemptive work on earth culminating in the Easter event, without which Christmas would not be celebrated.  Nevertheless, the infancy narratives in the gospels of Luke and Matthew that we hear on Christmas Day and the Epiphany, as well as the nativity scenes set up in our churches and homes, naturally provide a wonderful opportunity to talk to young children about the birth and the person of Jesus and to teach little ones to pray to him.  Children are also capable of grasping that it is because God gave us the gift of Jesus, that gifts are given at Christmas.  

In the West there are now four Masses for the feast of Christmas Day, beginning with the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve. In Rome there was only one Christmas Mass at first, then this grew to  three, each celebrated by the Pope in a different stational church: in the night, at dawn and during the day. (No Latin liturgy documents have ever specified a “midnight Mass.”) In time, these three Masses were celebrated all over the Western world.  

The gospel reading for the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve (Matthew 1:1-25) may be replaced by the gospel for Christmas Night (Luke 2:1-14) since the former lists the long genealogy of Jesus while the latter is Luke’s infancy narrative and thus more appropriate for the first Mass of Christmas which usually targets families with young children.  

The Prologue of John’s Gospel (Jn 1:1-18) proclaimed at the final Mass on Christmas day is the pinnacle reading of the whole feast. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14) captures the essence of the Christmas story told at the earlier Masses. 

In summary, “Christmas is larger than a baby in a manger… It is meant to take us to the level of spiritual maturity where we are capable of seeing in a manger the meaning of an empty tomb. It is meant to enable us to see through the dark days of life to the stars beyond them. “  (Joan Chittister OSB) 

Sr Ilsa Neicinieks from the Sisters of Mercy has a background in primary teaching and adult education. She is part of the team at the Office of Worship at the Archdiocese of Adeladie. She was also Director of Liturgy in the Parramatta Diocese NSW for some years. 

This article was originally published in the December 2012 edition of The Southern Cross.