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What Will the Church Look Like?

[T]he big talk of those who prophesy a Church without God and without faith is all empty chatter. We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers. It is utterly superfluous. Therefore, it will destroy itself. What will remain is the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church that believes in the God who has become man and promises us life beyond death. The kind of priest who is no more than a social worker can be replaced by the psychotherapist and other specialists; but the priest who is no specialist, who does not stand on the sidelines, watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal of men, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear, such a priest will certainly be needed in the future.

Let us go a step further. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Alongside this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true center and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism of the eve of the French Revolution – when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain – to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trail of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

– Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, Christmas, 1969 (from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Faith and the Future, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2006)

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"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Ah, yes, Christmas, that time of year with a winter nip in the air (unless you live in parts of Florida where record highs in the 80s are forecast this weekend) and the time of year when the thoughts of old school Protestants (meaning those few Protestants who still find the need to base their beliefs on a militant anti-Catholicism), New Age “pagans,” and militant atheists turn yet again to the supposed “pagan” origins of Catholicism. Along with Easter and Halloween, the Feast of Christmas is yet another of those celebrations we are told “prove” the pagan origins of Catholicism. After all, everyone knows Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are nothing more than “dressed up” paganism. It’s just too bad everyone is wrong…

Instead of merely reposting my piece on the true, non-pagan, origins for the December 25th date of Christmas, I share this link to a wonderful piece by Rev. Dwight Longenecker which does an excellent job of explaining (yet again) once and for all the true background of the Christian celebration of Christmas on December 25th.

Allow me to highlight a few points from Rev. Longenecker:

1. The “pagan origin” claimants begin with the capital mistake of assuming that mere resemblance proves causality. Simply because two things resemble each other does not mean one is the cause of the other. Two things can be strikingly similar yet share absolutely no causal relationship what-so-ever. Simply because Christians and pagans observed certain feasts at similar times throughout the year does not mean one automatically caused the other.

2. The Roman feast most often associated with Christmas by the “pagan originists” is Saturnalia, a Roman feast for the god Saturn which was held from December 17 to 23. However, this feast, while occurring on the wrong date (if Christianity “co-opted” this feast, why not make the date of Christmas December 17th to really sock it to those pagans?), also had nothing to do with the imagery of the solstice and the return of the sun. The focus of this feast centered more on the theme of sacrifice-to-appease-the-gods-for-a-good-harvest.

3. The Roman feast associated with the solstice was Dies Natalis Sol Invictus. The only problem here is the inconvenient fact that this feast wasn’t instituted until around AD 278, well after the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, and for quite some time remained a rather minor feast with a small cult. Further, we find no evidence that Sol Invictus was celebrated on December 25th until AD 360 – decades after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in AD 315. In fact, the promotion of the feast was due to the influence of Julian the Apostate who attempted to turn back the tide of Christianity sweeping the Empire. Huh, so that means Sol Invictus was used by the Roman authorities in an attempt to “win back” Christians to paganism, not the other way around.

4. The “pagan origins” nonsense completely ignores the fact that thousands (some sources say millions) of Christians lost their property and in many cases their lives over their complete refusal to, as Rev. Longenecker puts it, “offer so much as one grain of incense to the pagan gods.” Yet, the “pagan originists” would have us believe the very people who were giving their lives over refusal to participate in anything even resembling paganism suddenly decided to “co-opt” pagan festivals.

5. If we actually take time to read the historical record provided us in the writings of the early Church Fathers, we find a clear answer as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. As early as AD 386, we find a sermon by St. John Chrysostom linking the date of Christmas to the date of the Annunciation (the day the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus). The wording of his sermon suggests this linking was already a long-accepted tradition within the Church. We need to remember early Christians were primarily Jewish converts and thus the roots of Christianity are in Judaism, not Romanism. The Jews believed the world began on March 25th. They also believed great men died on the same date as the date of their conception. Therefore, we find the early Christians believed the date of Jesus’ conception was March 25th. Let’s count nine months and see what we find: December 25th.

So, just as I pointed out last time, the date of Christmas has nothing to do with Romans or paganism, but everything to do with early Jewish belief and the dating of Jesus’ conception by early Christians.

Merry Christmas!

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(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

For most of its history, no one in the United States connected Halloween to “paganism” or “wicca.” Only within the past few decades has it gone from a harmless “kid’s holiday” to an urban legend taking root among both New Agers and fundamentalist Christians about Halloween’s supposed “pagan” past.  Thanks to continued repetition of this urban legend by venues such as the History Channel and various New Age and “paranormal” publications, as well as fundamentalist Christian anti-Halloween “crusades,” most people today accept it as fact, never bothering to investigate it further.  Today’s urban legend claims Halloween directly dates back to a pre-Christian Celtic Druid festival which the (evil) Catholic Church co-opted in order to “suppress” pagans.  As with most urban legends, this one contains a dash of truth in order to hold together a bunch of complete nonsense.

The customs we now accept as associated with Halloween are actually of much more recent origin than New Age urban legend suggests and are a mix of traditions and practices from throughout Europe, Britain, and Ireland.  As with most things which began across the Atlantic and reached American shores, these various customs and traditions were blended, “Americanized” and repackaged into what we now call Halloween.  What we do know for certain is that the modern Halloween celebration has no direct religious connection with the ancient Druids of Celtic Britain and Ireland.

It’s true the Druids celebrated a minor festival at the end of October, as they did at the end of every month, but they had long since ceased to exist as an organized people when Halloween developed.  At the beginning of what eventually became the New Age movement, Druidism saw a “revival” in the 1700s and 1800s, but just like the current New Age movement, this involved people with no real connection to ancient Druids – except in their minds – and no real connection to actual ancient Druid practices.  Just like today’s New Age “pagans” and “wiccans,” a bunch of people pretended to be “Druids” with little actual historical knowledge (other than what they invented for themselves) of actual ancient pagan groups and practices.

Let’s examine the ancient Druids a bit closer.  First, unlike the image today’s self-styled “pagans” like to project, the Druids were not peace-loving “greenies” who liked to get naked and commune with nature.  Instead, they were a rather violent and blood thirsty Celtic people who inhabited pre-Roman Britain and Ireland.  The ancient Druids had much more in common with brutal peoples like the Aztecs than Kumbaya-singing hippies.  Our earliest records of the Druids come from the Romans.  It’s significant to note that even the Romans found these people excessively brutal.  We also find that it was the Romans who suppressed Druidism.  Tiberius (Roman emperor from AD 14 to 37) first outlawed the practice of Druidism.  Under Claudius (emperor from AD 41 to 54), the Druids were completely wiped out in Roman Britain.

The Roman record brings out two extremely important points regarding Druidism.  First, very clearly, the suppression of the Druids had nothing to do with the Catholic Church, which had not spread much outside Judea at this point in history.  So claims that the Church co-opted a Druid festival to create Halloween and force the conversion of Druids are flat-out false.  Second, a hallmark of the Roman Empire was allowing conquered territories a large amount of relative autonomy as long as they continued to acknowledge Rome and pay tribute – this included allowing people to maintain local religious customs (we see this very clearly in Judea).  The fact the Romans felt compelled to stamp out Druidism shows the Druids were anything but peace-loving nature freaks.

So how does the Catholic Church get drawn into all this?  In the fourth century, the Church instituted a feast day to honor all Christian martyrs of the faith.  This feast day was originally celebrated on May 13.  In 615, Pope Boniface IV established it as the “Feast of All Martyrs” and commemorated it with the dedication of a basilica in Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all martyrs.  By 741, the feast had grown to include remembering not only all martyrs, but all the saints in heaven as well.  As a result, the name was changed to the “Feast of All Saints” in 840.  In 844, long after the passing of the Druids and long after Christianity had become the predominate western religion, Pope Gregory IV transferred the feast to November 1st.

October 31st itself held no special significance in the Church calendar until 1484 (again, long, long past the time of the Druids) when Pope Sixtus IV declared the “Feast of All Saints” a holy day of obligation (days on which Catholics are obligated to attend Mass – in addition to Sundays) and gave it a vigil and an eight-day period or octave to celebrate the feast (the octave of All Saints was removed from the Church calendar in 1955).  For Catholics, the vigil is celebrated on the evening before the feast – hence Christmas Eve.  Saints were known as “hallowed” in old English.  Therefore, the vigil for the Feast of All Saints, or “All Hallows,” became known as “All Hallows’ Eve” – Halloween.  The fact that “Halloween” is derived from old English and the Druids happened to inhabit ancient Britain is as close as we come to a direct connection between the Catholic Church, Druids and today’s Halloween.

Even though it’s true that traditions such as dressing in costumes, Trick-or-Treating, and Jack-o-lanterns were originally inspired by ancient religious practices to ward off evil spirits, by the time these practices made their way to America, they had long since lost their religious meaning. Instead, they’d become much more along the lines of cultural traditions. Most telling is the fact that there is no mention of Halloween being a “pagan,” “wiccan,” or “evil” celebration in the past historical record. Only in recent decades has this notion taken hold. Once we consider the true facts, it leads me to ask just who exactly is it that has actually co-opted Halloween for their own purposes?

While an argument can be made regarding Halloween’s gross over-commercialization, an argument that can now be made about several holidays, this fact is a reflection of our out-of-control consumer society and not a reflection on the traditional observance of Halloween itself. Similarly, the fact that Halloween observances have taken on increasingly gory and over-sexed aspects are because we as a society have allowed it. In a secular relativistic society which teaches that every opinion (as long as it has nothing to do with traditional family values) is of equal merit, should we really be surprised at this? However, this should not prevent us from reclaiming the largely innocent and clean fun aspects of the traditional American customs associated with Halloween.

So, for good Catholics, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying All Hallow’s Eve. You don’t need to limit yourself to “Fall Celebrations” (which are actually much more pagan in nature than the traditional American observance of Halloween) or “All Saints Parties.” It’s okay for you to recapture the traditional American observance of Halloween. You can carve your Jack-o-lantern, throw on your costume, and go Trick-or-Treating all without fear that you’re participating in an “evil,” “pagan,” or “wiccan” celebration. Happy Halloween!

For more information, here is an article from Fr. Robert Barron’s The Word on Fire Blog answering many questions about Halloween and Catholicism: http://www.wordonfire.org/WoF-Blog/WoF-Blog/October-2012/Culture–Time-for-Catholics-to-Embrace-Halloween.aspx. For even more information on the real history of Halloween, you may read this article by Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P.: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Catholic/2000/10/Surprise-Halloweens-Not-A-Pagan-Festivalafter-All.aspx?p=1. As a further update, here’s a recent article from Catholic Answers with the same information as found in this article: http://www.catholic.com/blog/jon-sorensen/halloween-or-samhain. Here’s an article in which Dr. Taylor Marshall shares his “Top 10 Christian Halloween Ideas:” http://taylormarshall.com/2013/10/top-10-christian-halloween-ideas.html.

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Nativity by Lorenzo Lotto, 1523 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, everyone knows Christmas and most other Christian observances, even Christianity itself, are nothing but warmed over paganism – practices which were viciously ripped from the hands of innocent pagans by a marauding Catholic Church.

It’s just too bad everyone is wrong.

Strange how every year lately someone just can’t but help bringing up the worn out urban legend that Christmas is a “stolen” pagan winter solstice festival.  Of even more interest is the fact most of these people are self-described non-Christians and non-believers (especially in “organized religion”), others are even fallen away Christians, who for whatever reason (usually dissatisfaction with the “rules”) rejected Christ’s Church.  Yet, these very admittedly (by their own words) non-Christians somehow fancy themselves “experts” in Christianity.

Strange too is the fact these people’s “explanations” of the “truth” are often accompanied by all sorts of claims of “toleration.”  Rather dubious, I must say, considering how these people, in the name of “tolerance,” go out of their way to disparage Christianity.  “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

“Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15, RSV-CE).  Unfortunately, most Christians do not know the tenets and history of their faith well enough to counter these baseless charges.  Instead, they generally cede the point, often mumbling something about a “shameful” point in Church history.  As a result, since most Christians don’t know how or won’t take a stand, these sorts of myths continue to perpetuate.

So let’s take a look at the real facts surrounding the Christian Holy Day of Christmas.

Before we begin, it’s important to understand the correct definition of “pagan” and “paganism.”  Today, when most people, particularly its “practitioners,” use the word “paganism” they are referring to a New Age spiritism belief system.  However, this is not the formal meaning of the word, particularly when applied to the ancient world.  The Catholic Encyclopedia defines paganism thus: “Paganism, in the broadest sense includes all religions other than the true one revealed by God, and, in a narrower sense, all except Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism.”  In the ancient world, a “pagan” was simply someone who wasn’t Christian or Jewish (since Islam didn’t come along until the seventh century).

Let’s begin our study by putting to rest once and for all the notion that the early Christian Church somehow “suppressed” or “got rid of” pagans.  The time period under consideration for all these claims of the Church “suppressing” paganism is within the first few centuries of the establishment of the Christian Church by Jesus Christ.  A time during which Christians were being mercilessly persecuted by the Romans (pagans) for the “crime” of following someone whose message was one of love: love of God, love of neighbor and love of self.

Widespread and systematic Roman (pagan) persecution of Christianity lasted into the fourth century, by which time the major feast days and practices of Christianity were already established.  Given what the pagans were doing to Christians, the Church was hardly in a position to “suppress” anyone – even if she had chosen to do so.  Since the major feast days and practices were established during a period when the Church was under almost constant persecution, one can hardly say these days and practices were established to “stop” paganism since the pagan Roman authorities were in control and the Church was not in a position to “stop” anyone (again, even if she’d chosen to do so).

During this time period, the vast majority of converts to Christianity were Gentiles (non-Jews).  Keep in mind as well these were people who freely converted to Christianity during a time when such a choice meant subjecting one’s self to almost certain persecution and in many cases, even death.  People were not forced to become Christians – such a notion is anathema for a Church which believes God grants man free will and that it’s up to man to use his free will to freely choose God’s gift.  Those who brush off Christianity really need to understand this point.  At a time when simply going along with the status quo was easier and more conducive to one’s lifespan, many people freely chose Christianity even while seeing what was happening to fellow Christians at the hands of non-Christians.

Christianity calls people to join through faith and reason, not through force and subjugation.  St. Paul provides a perfect example of how early Christians interacted with Gentiles (pagans), inviting them to become Christians.  We read in Acts of the Apostles, when St. Paul entered Athens, he saw a temple dedicated to an “unknown” god.  Did he tear into the people, calling them fools for believing such nonsense?  No – instead he praised the people for their faith:

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” (Acts 17:22-23, RSV-CE)

He then used that as a spring board to introduce them to the “good news” of Jesus and entered into a dialogue with the people, inviting them to become Christians of their own free wills.  What a terrible act of suppression and attempt to get rid of paganism by force!

In addition, if you actually know Church history, you know why stories of Jesus’ birth were not of prime importance to the Apostles and early Christians.

In the immediate aftermath of Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension into Heaven, early Christians were most concerned with hearing the message of Jesus’ preaching.  They expected the Parousia (Second Coming of Christ) to happen within their lifetimes.  Therefore, they wanted to know the message of Jesus rather than being focused on details regarding the person of Jesus.  For these people, getting their lives in order so that they might be ready for the return of the Lord was their top priority.

However, as time passed (again, time during which Christians were viciously and systematically persecuted by non-Christians) and it became clear the Parousia wasn’t going to happen immediately, the Church began to settle itself in for the long term.  As this happened, people’s interest in Jesus began to go beyond just his preaching.

It was during this period that interest developed in establishing a feast day to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ.  So much time had passed since the actual events, no one any longer knew with complete certainty when this really happened – although as we’ll see shortly, compelling evidence existed for the date chosen.

Even more importantly, our ancient ancestors (Pagan, Jewish and Christian alike) were not nearly as concerned with detailed biography as we understand it in the modern sense.  Therefore, establishing exact historically accurate (as we understand this concept in the modern world) dates weren’t the prime concern of early Christians; so the historicity of the date is not a critical point.  The critical point we must examine is motivation, both of the early Christians as well as the Romans (pagans), in assigning significance to December 25th.

As it turns out, not only was Christmas not some sort of “hijacking” of a pagan festival, but the pagan festival generally cited as the one “stolen” by Christians was actually started by pagans to take December 25th from Christians.  As Dr. William Tighe, a church history specialist at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, puts it: “the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the ‘pagan origins of Christmas’ is a myth without historical substance.”

As Biblical scholar Mark Shae notes:

But in fact, the date [December 25] had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.

There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes.

What was the reaction of early Christians to Aurelian’s implementation of his Sol Invictus festival?  Shae continues:

The first irony is the reaction of the Christians of the late Roman Empire to Aurelian’s attempt to co-opt Christmas and make it a pagan day of celebration. Instead of fighting with Sun-worshipers who were trying to rip off their feast, early Christians simply “re-appropriate[d] the pagan ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the ‘Sun of Salvation’ or the ‘Sun of Justice.'”

The natural symbolism of the winter solstice (return of the sun and new life) happens to also fit perfectly with Christian theology: birth of the Son of Man and the “new life” found in Him.  Consequently, early Christians didn’t “take” anything from the pagans, but instead simply refused to allow Aurelian to claim some sort of “copyright” on December 25th.  Christians continued to leave it up to people’s free will to decide if worshiping the sun or worshiping the Son made more sense.

It also turns out that records associating December 25th with the birth of Jesus are actually significantly older than records associating December 25th as a pagan festival day.  Again quoting Biblical scholar Mark Shae:

[T]he definitive “Handbook of Biblical Chronology” by professor Jack Finegan (Hendrickson, 1998 revised edition) cites an important reference in the “Chronicle” written by Hippolytus of Rome three decades before Aurelian launched his festival. Hippolytus said Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25.

Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar—long before Christmas also became a festival.

So the inescapable historical record is that December 25th was an important day for Christians before it was an important day for pagans – or more correctly, an important day for one rather obscure pagan Roman sun-worship cult.

Also, the debate in the early Church which fixed the day of Jesus’ birth was not about that date, but about the dating of Good Friday.  The Eastern Church argued for dating Good Friday to April 6th while the Western Church argued in favor of a March 25th date (keep in mind, during this time, there was only one Christian Church since the Great Schism, which saw the breaking of the Church into the Eastern [Greek] Church and Western [Latin] Church did not occur until 1054 – well after the time period we’re looking at).

What does the date of Good Friday have to do with Christmas?  Everything.  I’ll let Dr. Tighe explain it:

At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.

This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed.

It is to this day commemorated almost universally among Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.

St. John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Constantinople, died AD 407) argued from a Biblical standpoint, an argument which had nothing to do with any pagan festival, for the December 25th date of Jesus’ birth:

Luke 1 says Zechariah was performing priestly duty in the Temple when an angel told his wife Elizabeth she would bear John the Baptist. During the sixth months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary learned about her conception of Jesus and visited Elizabeth “with haste.”

The 24 classes of Jewish priests served one week in the Temple, and Zechariah was in the eighth class. Rabbinical tradition fixed the class on duty when the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 and, calculating backward from that, Zechariah’s class would have been serving Oct. 2-9 in 5 B.C. So Mary’s conception visit six months later might have occurred the following March and Jesus’ birth nine months afterward.

Seeing clearly that December 25th, Christmas, is a Christian Holy Day not derived from a pagan winter festival, how did it become “common knowledge” that Christmas is simply a “warmed over” or “ripped off” pagan festival?  These sorts of claims of grew in the wake of the anti-Catholicism following the Protestant Reformation during the sixteenth century as Protestants looked for ways to disparage the Catholic Church as “non-Biblical.”

With regards the “pagan” roots of Christmas, we can trace the origins of these claims to the 17th and 18th centuries:

Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the Gospel.

In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one.

Note that Jablonski began, not with evidence, but with an assumption that the winter solstice must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. In other words, Jablonski simply noticed a correspondence between the Julian calendar’s solstice and Christmas and assumed the pagan feast must have been the prior one even though he had no proof for his theory. Meanwhile, Hardouin, rather than challenge that assumption, simply went along with it. And it’s upon these two authors that the entire myth about Christmas being a warmed-over pagan Sun-worshiping feast is based.

Now, as Paul Harvey would have said, we know the rest of the story.  Christmas is a Christian Holy Day, not a “hijacked” pagan winter solstice festival, and the urban legend of pagan roots for Christmas came from a 17th century Protestant whose self-admitted objective was to disparage Catholicism.

In the end though, we must avoid getting bogged down in the wrong question:

The crucial thing is not, “Did the early Christians get the date of Christmas right?” It is, rather, “What mattered to them as they determined the date of Christmas?” And when you look at that, you again immediately realize that what dominates their minds is not Diana, Isis, sun worship, or anything else in the pagan religious world. What interests them is, from our modern multicultural perspective, stunningly insular. Their debates are consumed, not by longing for goddess worship, or pagan mythology, or a desire to import Isis and Diana into the Faith, but the exact details of the New Testament record of Jesus’ death, alloyed with a Jewish—-not pagan—-theory about when Jewish—-not pagan—-prophets die. They don’t care a bit how pagan priests ordered their worship in the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. They care intensely about how Levitical priests ordered their worship in the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem. These Christians are completely riveted on Scripture and details of Jewish and Christian history and tradition. They don’t give a hoot what sun worshipers, Osiris devotees, or Isis fans might think.

[© 2010 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

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