This is one of my church newsletter articles, which seemed appropriate to put in here this week. :-)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.—John 1:1-5
I seem to wind up talking to a lot of people on the internet, and this is usually a very good thing. This way I manage to meet people I otherwise wouldn’t because they live on the other side of the country or of the world, and I hear viewpoints I might not otherwise hear. I manage to get into religious discussions with many of these online acquaintances, and for the most part, they are very respectful. We all listen to each other’s perspectives, ask questions, and explain our own understandings of God.
This time of year, though, one of the things I often hear from my non-Christian friends is a bit of good-natured ribbing. “Well, the church just stole a pagan festival and named it Christmas. It’s not really Jesus’ birthday!”
Historically, there is much truth to this. When the early church wanted to set a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they had no real idea what that date had been. They weren’t even entirely sure of what year it had occurred. So they had to pick a date and go with it.
Some of my online friends will insist that the early church leaders chose December 25th simply to take away from the Roman festival of Saturnalia—that they didn’t want people celebrating that pagan feast anymore, so they would give the people something to take its place. I don’t deny that there is some truth to this. There is much historical evidence of church missionaries co-opting local pagan customs and adapting them to the new faith. Holy days were set at certain times. Local deities were reinvented as saints.
However, I also believe that in their search for an identity, the early church made use of a beautiful and symbolic truth in setting Christmas in December. The Winter Solstice is the longest, darkest night of the year, and nearly every ancient culture had a celebration of it. They celebrated not because of its darkness, but because it is the time of a profound shift. On the Solstice, the Earth crosses an invisible line in its orbit around the sun. Suddenly the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which had been causing the Northern Hemisphere to tilt away from the sun, begins to face us towards the sun instead. The nights begin ever so slightly to become shorter, and the days to become longer. It is the return of light.
The actual birth date of the historical Jesus is a matter of curiosity, yet it in the long run, it makes no difference. The old Christmas carol “Do you hear what I hear?” contains a phrase which makes this quite clear: “The child, the child, sleeping in the night, he will bring us goodness and light.” The child Jesus is the light itself.
Historians and folklorists have a saying: “Truth passes into legend, legend passes into myth.” On the level of the truth of the spirit, hard cold facts come to matter less and less. The mythical truth is what counts. On the darkest night of cold winter, light returns through the stately turning of planet and star. In the darkest night of a human life, light returns through the long ago birth of a child.
Truly, symbolically, there could be no better time of year for our joyful Advent waiting and our celebration of the child’s birth. The birth of Jesus and the return of the sun’s light symbolize the very same thing. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can not overcome it, for it is a light God has set for us to follow and find our way home.