Coming to Terms with “Joy to the World”

For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been an enigma.  My family has always celebrated the holiday in the secular sense, always with the caveat that this is not really Jesus’ birthday.  For years I heard about the pagan origins, the festival of Sol Invictus, the druidic rituals of hanging greenery, the early catholic tradition of adopting pagan celebrations and putting a Christian twist on them to make converts more comfortable.  Some in my faith tradition see any observance of Christmas as wrong.  I heard of people who refused to decorate Christmas trees, out of a conviction that it was sinful.

But over the years, I felt something was not quite right.  I loved the music of Christmas, both sacred and secular.  I appreciated the messages of good will and peace, but then I appreciated them at all times of year.  I felt like something of a hypocrite.

No, I don’t believe that Jesus was born on December 25.  But someone did: in fact, the link to December 25 is probably closely linked to an early belief about Jesus’ life.  According to Andrew McGowan, writing in Bible History Daily, the reasoning goes something like this: 

“There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

“Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

“This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

“Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”

“In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas. In the East, too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.” Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.

“Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).”

(http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/)

Now of course, the old arguments regarding meteorological evidence (shepherds in the fields are more likely in spring or summer), suggests a different time of year.  And at the risk of sounding like a modern political hack, we have no birth certificate to conclusively prove the timing of his birth.

Timing notwithstanding, I believe Jesus was indeed born.  I believe that this event was one of the most life- and history-altering events in the history of mankind.  And while there is absolutely no evidence that the first Christians ever celebrated Jesus’ birth, as humans in awe of the divine, it is natural that we set aside a day to reflect on this most auspicious event.  If angels sang, and shepherds assembled, and (later) wise men offered precious gifts, is his birth not worthy of our continued remembrance?  Yes, we are instructed to remember his death and sacrifice in our frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper.  But without his birth, there could have been no perfect life, no foundational teachings, no life of compassion and love to emulate, no sacrificial death to save us.

The timing of Jesus’ birth will remain a mystery.  That those who show him honor and reverence should honor his birth is no mystery at all.  While I cannot personally commend this observance as a matter of religious obligation, I cannot condemn the general observance by people who love Jesus, and choose to honor him in this way.

In 1719, Isaac Watt published the hymn, “Joy to the World,” as an anticipation of Jesus’ triumphal Second Coming.  With its echo of the angelic message in Luke 2.10, it is no wonder that people would adopt the song as an anthem in honor of his birth.  As his arrival marked a new dawn for humankind, I can see how celebrating his birth in a cold, bleak time of year, looking forward to the warmer days of spring and new life would take on an appealing significance.  In that spirit, I join with that sentiment.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room,

And Heaven and nature sing,

And Heaven and nature sing,

And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

 

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!

Let men their songs employ;

While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains

Repeat the sounding joy,

Repeat the sounding joy,

Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

 

No more let sins and sorrows grow,

Nor thorns infest the ground;

He comes to make His blessings flow

Far as the curse is found,

Far as the curse is found,

Far as, far as, the curse is found.

 

He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove

The glories of His righteousness,

And wonders of His love,

And wonders of His love,

And wonders, wonders, of His love.

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2 Responses to Coming to Terms with “Joy to the World”

  1. Pingback: A Pause to Reflect on Reaching 100 Posts | the trail is the thing

  2. Pingback: Christmas, 2014 | the trail is the thing

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