Christmas is not the most ancient of Christian feasts. There is little evidence of 25 December as a day to celebrate Christ’s birth before the mid 4th century. According to the Revd Dr Paul Bradshaw, an eminent liturgical scholar (and the Liturgical Advisor of this diocese in Europe) the earliest reference to 25 December as the Feast of the Nativity appeared around 354 in Rome. (However in other parts of the Church such as in Egypt, 6 January was observed from the late 2nd century as both the commemoration of the birth of Jesus as well as his baptism. The latter continues to be a theme of the 6 January feast of the Epiphany).
Why the slow start to dedicate a feast to the birth of Jesus? The hesitancy might stem from the Church’s theological debate with the Arians about the relationship of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. “Were they equal or not?” was the question. The Arians would be in favour of marking the Son’s beginning or birth in time as they were unsure about the equality of Father and Son. They argued that “there was a time when the Son was not”. On the other hand, the orthodox argued for the theological position which became enshrined in the Creed, that the Son was “God of God, light of Light, very God of very God” and “of one substance with the Father”.
Interestingly, traces of this early debate can be detected liturgically. For instance, although a feast of the birth of Jesus the oldest Gospel reading associated with Christmas is the start of St John’s Gospel which proclaims that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. Even today in the Church of England, St Luke’s story of the birth in Bethlehem can be read at one of the Christmas services, (and is customary at Midnight Mass), but the Church states that the reading from the beginning of St John’s Gospel should be read at some celebration during the feast.
The mystery of Christmas is that the Eternal Word, the Son who is consubstantial with the Father, was made flesh and entered into the world, born as the babe of Bethlehem. A hymn from the Eastern Church enshrines this faith:
Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being, and the earth offers the cave to him whom no one can approach; Angels with Shepherds give glory, while Magi journey with a star, for to us there has been born a little Child, God before the ages.Happy Christmas to all readers of this blog!