Sunday, December 03, 2006

Happy New Year!!

Christians are so weird. Jews of course celebrate Rosh Hashannah--- the Jewish New Year. Most Christians however hardly even notice the Christian New Year which happens to have just transpired. Instead, they prefer to celebrate the ancient Roman and modern secular New Year on the eve of January 1 (a month named after the two-faced Roman God Janus). This is on a par to celebrating the Chinese New Year when you are not Chinese. What a colossal bad witness we give when we celebrate the secular New Year but not the Christian one. Christians should keep their own calendar, not Caesar's whether the ancient or the modern Caesar.

Advent is the beginning of the Christian year. Today was the first Sunday in Advent. If we bothered to notice, there are a whole series of wonderful Christian New Year's celebrations we could undertake. On the first Sunday in Advent we are supposed to be focusing on the Second Coming, not the first. This tradition goes back many centuries and is encoded into the lectionary texts for today. Technically the first Sunday in Advent both ends the old year (by looking forward to Christ's return) and inaugurates the New One.

If we were going to make meaningful Christian New Year's resolutions they should have to do with praying for, preparing for, teaching about, expecting the return of Christ. We would be remembering that everytime we pray the Lord's Prayer 'thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven' we are in fact praying for the return of Christ, very similar to the marana tha prayer found in 1 Cor. 16-- (Aramaic for 'Come O Lord'). Or perhaps as the medieval church did we would resolve to help the poor in more meaningful ways in the coming Christian year (instead of resolving merely to stop stuffing our own faces so often, and lose some weight). If you thought it was weird that Charles Wesley wrote a hymn entitled 'Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending' for this particular Sunday which is about Christ's visible return, you have just revealed that you did not know what the subject matter of the First Sunday of Advent has always been ever since we have had a Christian calendar.

Of course Christians seem with regularity not to have been very good at figuring out the proper timing for things. Take for instance the Roman monk from the sixth century I like to call Denny the Dwarf (aka Dionysius Exiguus). He is the one who saddled us with the B.C./A.D. divide we currently have. The only problem was he miscalulated the date of Jesus' birth. He was off by about-4-6 years. So weird as it may sound, Jesus was born 4-6 B.C. depending on exactly when Herod the Great died. This much we know for sure--- Herod died before the turn of the era as reckoned by Dionysius. In fact he seems to have died by at least 2 B.C. This then pushes the birth of Jesus back a ways, probably to about 4 B.C. since the flight into Egypt took place well before the death of Herod, and of course the birth of Jesus transpired before either of these events.

It is time for Christians to take back time (not to be confused with turn back the clock-- I know too many churches fervently praying that next year will be 1954 all over again). By this I mean that time is God's gift to us, and we need to live in a Christian way in relationship to time. We need to keep the Christian calendar of celebrations, including Christmas and Easter of course, not the secular one. Last year's huge snafu of canceling Christmas Sunday services so we could spend more time with the physical family rather than with the family of faith/ body of Christ was a good example of how to capitulate to non-Christian thinking about time.

Taking back time, which can also be called 'redeeming the time' (see Ephes. 5.16-- it does not refer to buying back time but rather making the most of it for the Lord and a good witness to Him), means for example we prioritize our time properly. For example, we don't go be soccer moms and dads on a Sunday morning unless there is some very special reason to do so. We don't rearrange church events to suit the schedule of sports events. Even worse was the church in Indiana who put TVs in the back of the sanctuary so people could watch I.U. basketball during the church Vesper's service and Board meeting. Talking about revealing where our real priorities lie. The Lord and his day and his business deserves more respect than that.

My suggestion to us all is to live in the Christian moment for the entire year to come--- Advent leads to Christmas, which leads to Epiphany which leads to Lent which leads to Easter which leads to Pentecost which leads to Kingdomtide and then we start the cycle over again. The cycle begins with the story of Christ, moves on to the story of the church, and returns once more to the story of Christ's Comings on the first Sunday in Advent. We are on a pilgrimage with Jesus and then on our own until he returns. His story is the story we must recite and retell until it becomes our story. My suggestion is that whenever we are in danger of getting caught up in the non-Christian moment with its own urgencies that we say to ourselves 'all in God's good time'. God's good time and timing is what we should be living by.

There is of course a famous text from Ecclesiastes which became a famous song-- 'to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven'. Just so, and the time is now for us to set back our mental clocks to Christian time. Its Advent (from the Latin Adventus-- 'to come'). Are you looking forward to the coming of Christ, or just the coming of an overly commerical celebration we increasingly call X-mas. It is up to you as to whether you put Christ back in Christmas or not in your life.

The term Christmas of course originally meant the mass for Christ. Will we be celebrating in a way that is commensurate with the meaning of that birth?
Paul reminds us that 'at the exactly right time, God sent forth his Son' (Gal. 4).
A medieval hymn written near the time the Christian calendar was set says this---

"Though Christ in Bethlehem, a thousand times be born,
Unless he's born in you, your heart is still forlorn."

During this Christmas season let's redeem the time, and so bear witness to the fact that we know our Redeemer lives and is the Lord of all time. Amen


C.S. Feld said...

Hi! I'm a regular reader of your blog. I just wanted to know if you will be writing about this new film "The Nativity Story".

Ben Witherington said...

Yep... sure enough, after I see it tomorrow.......

José Solano said...

Thank you for another thought provoking posting. I'm still engaged in pondering and researching the one about the Eucharist, reading Julius Baum's Symbolic Representations of the Eucharist and rereading Jung's Transformation Symbolism in the Mass.

My thoughts on this theme are as follows: Though I enjoy very much focusing on the varied holidays, holy days, and their religious meanings, don't they mostly coincide with pagan ritual ceremonies and are a Christianizing of such events? We really do not have any solid evidence for any of these dates that we associate with Christian happenings. Nor do I think we have any evidence that the primitive church was involved in any such celebrations.

I love your beautiful quote of the medieval hymn: "Though Christ in Bethlehem, a thousand times be born, Unless he's born in you, your heart is still forlorn."

Isn't this what it is all about. Though I do not plan to give up the Christianized holiday celebrations, as they are so richly culturally binding, isn't it still possible to give up the entire liturgical calendar and focus daily on Christ's birth in us? I think Meister Eckhart had something to say about this also.

rocksalive777 said...

Either my confirmation class skipped over Advent=New Year or I wasn't paying attention. Regardless, thank you for this post. It's given me a lot to think about for the upcoming church year.

Happy New Year.


José Solano said...

Reflecting on my comment I must modify it as I recognize that Easter is closely linked to Passover for which we do have a precise date. There are discrepancies nevertheless between Western (Gregorian) and Orthodox (Julian) calendars so that actual celebrations often fall on different days. There are minor discrepancies with the Hebrew calendar in relation to Julian and Gregorian calendars.

It is really holidays other than Easter and those marked off in relation to Easter that seem to coincide with pagan festivals. Although there is correspondence between Easter and certain pagan festivals the dating still relates to Passover. None seem to be related to practices of the earliest Christians, nor do they appear to be essential other than by the traditional demands (high holy days or "holy days of obligation") first made by later Catholic and Orthodox practices.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jose:
I am afraid you are operating with a common misconception about all the holy days with the possible exception of Christmas. We know for a fact that Pentecost was originally a Jewish festival and became a Christian one because of the sending of the Spirit 50 days after Easter. We know that Jesus died April 7 A.D. 30 (or possibly in A.D. 33-- this depends on a couple of collateral dates from the historical references in the Passion accounts), in the context of Passover.

Some have tried to suggest that the Christian Christmas festival was a replacement for the pagan winter solstice festival but that doesn't work since that festival was over and done with on Dec. 21-22. Some have suggested it replaced the Roman Saturnalia, but it is so very different than that festival it could hardly be called a Christian knock-off of it. Then we could talk about All Hallow's Eve and All Saints Day, which was turned into a secular thing called Halloween. In other words, the evidence we have suggests holy days being turned into secular holidays, not the other way around.

You are right about the differences between Western and Orthodox on their church year calendar, but this is because of a screw up having to do with the Julian and Gregorian calendars, not anything principial.
Therefore, let's keep Christmas shall we?

Ben W.

J. B. Hood said...


Did Hallmark put you up to this!??

Jackson said...

Hi Ben-

Its interesting that the paganization of Christian celebrations continues, though in much more subtle ways, so as to escape the attention of many Christians.

For example, I find it interesting that the Christmas season now revolves around the retailer's calendar - starting the day after Halloween and ending the 26th of December. Such a change from the traditional celebration, which, in addition to Advent, celebrated the feast of the Nativity over a number of days, culminating in the Feast of the Epiphany. But most have never heard of that feast nowadays.

I think we do our celebration a diservice when we tailor our calendar to the retailors. Let us bring back Advent and the Twelve Days of Christmas and the Epiphany. Let the Holy Calendar stand apart from the secular calendar.


PS - I blogged similar thoughts about this about a week ago.

Terry Hamblin said...

I once heard a sermon where the preacher was absolutely certain that Jesus was born on the night of September 22nd-23rd 4BC. As I remember this was based on the time when Zacharius (the father of John the Baptist) was serving in the Temple. As he was of the division of Abijah this would have been for a two week period once a year, and when can be worked out from details, I think, in II Chronicles.

Although it all sounded plausible, I paid it as little heed as I pay to those who, with charts and diagrams, explain when the Second Coming will be.

What really mattered is as John Betjeman put it:

"That God was Man in Palestine"

though the final line of that poem requires interpretation.

Matt Purmort said...

Good post Dr Witherington, it makes think about how bent out of shape Evangelicals are about retailors not wishing people Merry Christmas, to me it shows just how dependent we have become on the culture needing to validate our story rather than the Church. Perhaps if we really celebrated Advent leading up to Christmas in the church we would see just how opposite, the culture and the church are when each say "Merry Christmas."

Ben Witherington said...

Jackson I am glad to hear we are on the same wave length. J.B. no Hallmark didn't put me up to this, but celebrating Christmas has been a 'hallmark' of my Christian life.
And Terry, as our Aussie friends say--- 'Too right mate.'
Advent blessings,


José Solano said...

"I am afraid you are operating with a common misconception about all the holy days with the possible exception of Christmas." (Dr. Witherington)

Actually, my "misconception" is many holy days except Easter and those linked through the Passover dating of Easter. Many Christian holidays have neither any association with paganism or early Christian celebrations. They are just invented by the church to celebrate some saint or ancient occurrence.

The fact is that Saturnalia festivals predate the Christmas celebration and some link the festival activities as culminating on Dec. 25th. This was also the approximate date of the winter solstice (not Dec. 21-22) in the Julian calendar that was introduced by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. In Scandinavia they also had Yule which ran late December to early January. I understand it was Sextus Julius Africanus (221 AD) who introduced Dec. 25th as the birth date of Jesus.

The varied pagan festivals seem to be clearly tied to the winter solstice celebrations throughout Europe. I do not believe we have any factual evidence for the day Jesus was born, though I'm willing to learn if someone really knows. It is even surprising that the Crucifixion could be dated with such accuracy as April 7th. Does the Passover begin and end on the same date in 30 and 33 AD? I can look that up. Tertullian thought he died on March 25th.

A little research shows that the Calendar of Filocalus , 354 AD, contains the first reference of a Christmas celebration. I see no hint for such holidays in the New Testament, no talk about what some have referred to as the "cult of the baby Jesus."

I understand that Origen in 245 AD denounced the celebration of Jesus' birth. In England the Puritans banned Christmas in 1647. Riots broke out. Even after the ban was removed Anglicans still disapproved of Christmas celebrations. Christmas was also banned by the Puritans in Boston (1659-1681). It was not much celebrated in the US after the Revolution as it was seen as an "English custom." Some think Washington Irving is principally responsible for its strong resurgence. It was declared a national holiday in 1870. (Hmm. A national holiday. We should soon be expecting an all out assault on a "national" Christian holiday.)

None of this questionable historicity is any cause to stop celebrating Christmas and we love to go around our neighborhood singing Christmas carols. I do abhor the secularization, commercialization and mythologization of these holidays; Santa Clause, red nose reindeers, Easter bunnies, etc.

It was most disconcerting to us several years ago when we attended a Midnight Mass at a Catholic Church in Costa Rica, which after singing lovely Christmas carols, played the wordless tune Jingle Bells at the stroke midnight. They could not possibly have known what words go with this tune but we quietly walked out the side door.

Happy holidays.

Ben Witherington said...

The date of the crucifixion comes from the year A.D. 30, not 33, as the former is the more likely date. And I quite agree with what you say about all the Saints days, not however with your winter solstice remark.



Camassia said...

I note that according to this, the New Year was not celebrated on Jan. 1 during the Middle Ages, but at various other times. (Oddly enough, it does not mention Advent as being one of them.) Apparently Jan. 1 came back with the Gregorian calendar. It would be interesting to know why.

Rev Pam Crane said...

My name is Rev. Pam Crane and I am an astrologer.
In 1992 I worked with a new technique and a certain measure of inspiration to search out the correct date and time of the Nativity of Christ; what I found was May 7th 4BC, at sunset. I have worked hard with this natal chart for Jesus over the past 15 years and it constantly behaves as it should, historically and culturally. There is a detailed chapter about this in my 2000 book "The Draconic Chart" (which refers to the technique that was used. I have had a lot of Help with this, believe me! I have always been a Christian, and this has strengthened my committment. The entire universe is full of meaning and beauty and purpose; it is full of God. Just as music is a spiritual language, so is the mighty, silent music of the ever-changing heavens; and each individual life is an inseparable part of that glory - a child of God. And Christ came to show us the pinnacle of all that beauty. The patterns in the heavens when He came to us were utterly beautiful, unmatched at any other time.