Our reflection this evening considers why Jesus became more highly spiritualized in the early Christian era, why December 25th was chosen as the date of Jesus’ birth, and the consequences of that decision for how we read the Gospels through the Church year.
Reflection: Preparing for Advent
The church year begins with the four Sundays of Advent (coming) leading to Christmas. Our Gospel readings are on 3-year cycle. This year mostly Luke.
We met Luke as author of the Gospel and of Acts at Evening Prayer on September 22nd. Luke was probably an educated, native Greek-speaking, ‘diaspora’ Jew.
Luke’s Gospel likely dates from about 75-85 CE. Luke quotes extensively from Mark. The Four Source hypothesis is that Luke, like Matthew, used Mark and an unknown source document known as Q (= quelle = source in German), plus his own unique material.
All Gospel writings depend on oral tradition, because they date from decades after Jesus lived on earth (no records from TV or newspapers). That means that we must be careful to recognize that ‘Jesus stories’, and especially the actual words spoken by Jesus, probably got elaborated over time.
More than that, all the Gospel writers had an agenda. That the reader should believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed Son of God.
This evening, I want to talk specifically about the Advent material in the Gospels – Jesus’ origins. There was a change in emphasis from Mark (65 CE) to Matthew/Luke (75-85) and John (95).
Mark did not consider Jesus’ birth or family life as remarkable. Jesus had a normal family with brothers and sisters (Mark 3). He was “the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses …” (Mark 6).
Both Luke and Matthew give Jesus a miraculous birth (Luke much more extensive). John makes Jesus very other-worldly, “eternally begotten of the father (John 1). I suspect that the oral tradition gradually made Jesus into a less “earthy” figure with time. So the later Gospel writers felt obliged to fill in the gaps.
Thus, I think that it’s very likely that Luke made up the whole Christmas story. This would not have been regarded the same way in the ancient world as it would today (mere fabrication). It was Luke’s way of explaining to a 1st century audience that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.
So, both Matthew and Luke have Annunciation and birth stories. Luke’s account differs from Matthew’s and is much more extensive. Overall: Luke = shepherds and angels; Matthew = Magi.
Anglican lectionary readings for Advent, according to Luke
The Anglican lectionary for Advent gives us just the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel of the miraculous birth, and Mary’s song of praise (the Magnificat). This year, we will depart from the lectionary for the next four Sundays, so as to cover the whole of Luke’s account of the events leading up to Jesus’s birth. And also the lead-up to the conception of John the Baptist, and the birth of John. Luke tells us that Jesus and John were cousins, born just months apart. Therefore it is nonsensical of read John’s baptism of Jesus during Advent.
Why do we celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th?
Most people don’t realize that no-one knows the actual date of Jesus’ birth. Early Christians didn’t even celebrate the event up to the 2nd century. A Roman Christian historian named Sextus Julius Africanus dated Jesus’ conception to March 25 (the same date upon which he believed that the world was created). Therefore, after nine months in his mother’s womb, resulted in a December 25 birth. It wasn’t till 336 CE that Rome decreed December 25 as the date. Even then, the Christ-mass wasn’t widely celebrated for another 500 years,
Therefore, when we read Luke’s Christmas narrative, we realize that there is no actual evidence for a winter birth. No snowy trek to Bethlehem. Our Christmas carols like In the bleak midwinter and See amid the winter snow are the imposition of North European culture on Luke’s story.
The date December 25 has had a significant impact on Christian liturgy. Each year, we read through one of the Gospels. This coming year, Luke. But we cannot avoid having Holy Week in the spring, because Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover, a springtime festival. That’s why we have to rush through Jesus ministry from baptism to resurrection in less than three months, the season of Epiphany. That leaves six months of “ordinary time” from abut June to November to cover Jesus’ teachings.
It also explains why we end the church year with the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus that really belong in Lent. All because some Roman guy in the 2nd century figure that Mary must have conceived Jesus on the same date that he believed that God created the world!!