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 Vol. 7, No. 11 

November 2005

~ Page 5 ~

Christmas in Church History

By Dennis Gulledge

Image In the 4th century, the "church year" with a cycle of regularly recurring annual festivals came into being. The purpose of such was to bring to bear upon people, by public festivals, the memory of Christ, great men and prominent events. It was patterned after the Jewish ecclesiastical year: Sabbath, Passover feast or harvest. The "Christian Calendar" centered in the person and Word of Christ. It is broken down into "The Christian week" (Lord's Day, Wednesday and Friday [fast days] and Saturday); "The Christian year" (Easter, Pentecost and Ascension, Christmas and Epiphany).

The original idea of the church year was a yearly representation of the leading events of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It is a chronological "confession of faith," a moving panorama of the great events of Gospel history. It served to recall the public to the most important events upon which salvation rests. It was developed after the pattern of the Old Testament with no direction from Christ or the apostles. The New Testament contains no traces of such observances. As early as the second century, we find observances of Easter and Pentecost in "the church." In the fourth century, the three great festival cycles were Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. With regard to such feasts, the Catholic Church imposed penalties for failure to observe them. Ecclesiastics cautioned people against public parade, fancy dress, banqueting and drinking parties, preferring to leave such things to the Greeks.

The "Christmas festival" is the celebration of the birth of the Son of God. Notwithstanding its deep significance and popularity, it is of late origin. The day, month and year of Jesus' birth are not mentioned in the New Testament. The observance of the birth of Christ dates to the 2nd century, the first traces of it being in the reign of Emperor Commodus (d. 180 A.D.). In the centuries following, the birthday of Jesus was celebrated in the spring of the year (April 18, 19; May 20).

The earliest mention of December 25th is in the Philocalian Calendar in the year 336. This date was likely chosen to oppose the festival of the Persian sun god, Mithras, on the same date. It became the prevailing opinion of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries that Christ was actually born on December 25th. The Methodist commentator Adam Clarke wrote, "...the Latin church, supreme in power, and infallible in judgment, placed in on the 25th of December, the very day on which the ancient Romans celebrated the feast of their goddess Bruma" (Clarke's Commentary, "Matthew-Acts" 370).

Instead of revealing the birthday of Jesus Christ in Scripture, God has revealed the resurrection day--the first day of the week (Mark 16:1, 9; Luke 24:1-47). We are not taught to remember the day of Jesus' birth in any kind of religious fashion, but we are taught to remember the day of his death every Lord's Day in the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16). This should be enough for every faithful Christian to know and do!Image

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