Christmas…the Rest of the Story
A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
“For You created my inmost being, You knit me together in my mother’s womb … all the days ordained for me were written in Your Book before one of them came to be.” – –Psalm 139:13,16
Celebrating the Lord’s birthday on December 25 is a tradition that’s probably about 1300 or 1400 years old. “Wait a minute,” you say, “There’s a 600 year gap. What did people do before then?” Let’s find out.
First, we believe the December date came to be as a result of the integration of Christianity into the Roman Empire as first a permitted belief and later the official religion of the Empire. Previously, it had been outlawed and its practice punishable by death. But the Emperor Constantine changed all that, the worship of Jesus was made legitimate, and in the 4th century AD what was to become the Holy Roman Empire was born.
You know how deeply ingrained traditions become. For generations the pagan Feast of Saturnalia had been a part of Roman life, celebrated at the time of the winter solstice, late December. Rather than abandon this tradition when Christianity was legalized, the pagan holiday was declared to be the day of our Lord’s birth and renamed Christmas. This was not the first time that traditions from different cultures had been blended together in the Roman Empire. When the seat of pagan religion moved from Babylon, it first settled in Pergamus (modern Turkey) before moving to Rome. Traditions from the Babylonian winter feasts like mistletoe, hot cross buns, yule logs, and evergreen trees (see Jeremiah 10:1-5) were incorporated into the Feast of Saturnalia and later found their way into celebrations of Christmas. Knowing their origins, early Christians accepted neither the date nor the pagan traditions and refused to celebrate the Lord’s birth in December. It was several hundred years before the custom gained acceptance in the Christian world. Hence the gap.
To discover the Lord’s real birthday requires some detective work, and the biggest clues come to us from John the Baptist. John was six months old at the time of the Lord’s birth and discovering his birthday is somewhat easier so let’s start there.
Happy Birthday, John
Zechariah and Elizabeth, John’s parents, had been unable to have children. Then the Angel Gabriel visited Zechariah during one of his tours of duty in the Temple to inform him that he and Elizabeth were being given a son (Luke 1:8-11). Zechariah was a priest and had been chosen by lot to offer prayers at the Golden Altar just outside the Holy of Holies. This was already a once in a lifetime honor but Gabriel’s appearance made it dramatically more unique. Only twice before had an event like this taken place, and all involved barren women and Messianic promise. Hannah was given a son Samuel who later anointed David King of Israel. The mother of Samson was told her son would begin the deliverance of Israel from the Philistines. And now Zechariah was being told that his son would be the one to proclaim the coming Messiah.
Now comes the first assumption. Wanting a son more than anything (it was a woman’s crowning achievement in that era, whereas being barren was considered a punishment from God) we have to believe that Zechariah and Elizabeth went about the process of conception immediately upon his return home. So when was that?
King David had divided the priests into 24 courses (divisions) to serve rotating one-week periods in the temple. All 24 divisions served during the Feasts and so each one also served twice a year on rotation. The religious year began about mid-March on our calendar and right away there were nearly three weeks of preparation and Feasts; Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits. Then the divisions began their rotation.
Comparing Luke 1:5 to 1 Chronicles 24:10 shows that Zechariah was of the division of Abijah, number eight in the weekly rotation. Counting the time all divisions were on duty and eight weeks of rotation, Gabriel’s visit occurred about 3 months into the religious year, mid-June on our calendar. Assuming Elizabeth conceived shortly after Zechariah’s return home from temple duty, a normal 9 month gestation period places the birth of John the Baptist at the beginning of the following religious year (mid-March remember) and indeed there are many who believe John was born on Passover.
According to Luke 1:26-27 Mary conceived in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Based on our discovery of John’s birthday, that means our Lord would have been conceived in late December and born the following September. Assuming this is an accurate conclusion and Jesus was really born in September then is Christmas just the result of overlaying Christian beliefs on a formerly pagan holiday as I’ve stated above or is there more to it?
Maybe you’ve heard the story of Hanukkah. During the Maccabean Revolt (166-142 BC) the Jews recaptured their desecrated Temple from Syrian dictator Antiochus Epiphanes and undertook a rebuilding and cleansing process to make it fit for worship again. (Angry with the Jews and defiant toward God, Antiochus had sacrificed a pig on the altar and erected a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the Holy Place requiring them to worship it. This outrageous act rendered the Temple unclean and was known as the Abomination of Desolation.) Jewish tradition holds that when they prepared to cleanse the Temple not enough Holy Oil could be found to complete the required 8-day purification ritual. But the small supply they did have miraculously lasted for the full eight days making the Temple holy again. This event gave rise to the popular 9 branched Hanukkah Menorah as distinguished from the 7 branched menorah ordained in Exodus 25:31-40. The Hanukkah Menorah has a single elevated branch representing the available supply of oil and 8 additional branches, one for each day of the purification ritual. It symbolizes the miraculous cleansing of the Temple and is often seen at Christmas time. Hanukkah is also referred to as the Festival of Lights for this reason.
What Day Is This?
As you know Hanukkah takes place around Christmas so I’m going to use the intersection of the two holidays to make what some call an outrageous claim. I believe there’s a theological connection between Hanukkah and Christmas that does nothing less than declare God’s position on the beginning of life.
Remember, John the Baptist was conceived in what would have been mid to late June on our calendar and born the following March, and according to Luke 1:26-27 Mary conceived in the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. That means that our Lord was conceived in late December and born the following September. Because the calendars are different the exact dates vary from year to year, so this year Hanukkah began on the evening of December 9th and ended at sunset on the 17th. Some years Christmas falls within the 8 days of Hanukkah. Jesus is called “the True Light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9). Was Jesus, The Light of the World, conceived during Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights? Is this why Mary’s response to Gabriel (Luke 1:38) was an excerpt from the Hanukkah prayer? Are we actually celebrating the Lord’s conception at Christmas, instead of His birth? If that’s the case do you realize what God is telling us?
When Did Christmas Begin?
The fact that Jesus is God incarnate is amply supported in Scripture, despite liberal theology’s views to the contrary. But when did He become God incarnate and why did He choose to come into the world the way He did? Jeremiah 1:4-5, Psalm 51:5 and 139:13-16 all allude to the fact that God knew us at the moment of conception, knew all the details of our lives and considered us human from that time. To merely be with us in human form Jesus could have arrived as a fully grown man, a teenager or even a baby, but He came as an embryo, a fetus, because that’s the way all humans come into the world.
Christmas began at the moment of divine conception. God the Father planned it, God the Holy Spirit planted the fertilized seed in Mary, and at that moment God the Son took on human form … the form of an embryo, a fetus in the womb of a virgin. From that first moment of conception Jesus was very much alive, very much human, very much God. He didn’t become the Incarnate God somewhere along the path of His life, or even when He emerged from Mary’s womb. He had been such from the moment of conception (Luke 1:35). God could not have made any stronger statement about the sanctity of pre-born life.
As a poor, unwed teen-aged girl about to be ostracized from family and society, Mary met all the modern criteria for a therapeutic abortion. Had she and Joseph sought one, it would have been just as much the murder of the Messiah as was His death on the cross 33 years later. So the life of the Christ child really did begin at Christmas. Immanuel … God with us.
And now you know the adult version. Merry Christmas.