We do not know when Jesus of Nazareth was born. The earliest Christians mention days in March, April, May and November. December 25th was adopted in the fourth century as part of the process of making Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Up until the reign of Constantine in the early fourth century, being a follower of Jesus was an illegal act. Constantine’s alleged conversion completely transformed the situation. Many of the Christian leaders believed the victory had won ‘the world’ for Christ and the Emperor was considered as some kind of representative of Christ – a vicar to Christ – and as a consequence his will would be bowed to, far too easily, starting the subservient relationship between the Church and the state, which still exists in many places to this day.
Constantine was a worshipper of the sun, the Sol Invictus (the insurmountable sun), before his conversion. By the 4th century Mithras, one of the Gods of Zoroastrianism, had become important among the soldiers of Rome. An evolution of Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, he was Zoroastrism’s main prophet. He was born on December 25th! The tendency of the Romans through their history was to combine elements of different religions – syncretism – and in the mind of Constantine, Jesus and Mithras were embodiments of the only true God who was worshipped as the Creator by the Christians and Sol Invictus by the Mithraists. Constantine insisted that the Church worshipped on the day of the Sun (Sol – Sun-day) and that the birth of Jesus was to be celebrated on the same day as the birth of Mithras.
Constantine’s alleged conversion changed the nature of the Christian Church, which became a hand-maiden to the state. The most striking example of this transformation is the fact that the Church, which regarded militarism and wars as anti-Christian acts, changed its beliefs. By the end of the fourth century it became illegal to refuse to join the army!
The whole emphasis of Christmas changed – the birth of Jesus became a festival of mirth and revelry like the old Roman festival celebrated at the same time to mark the sun’s birth, known as the Saturnalia. The emphasis was redirected towards celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus, one who was going to give the people the opportunity to find Paradise having left this world – so long as they remained quiet and obedient to the regime, under the authority of the king and the church, throughout their lives.
The story was even changed in the Gospel! The ‘wise men’ became monarchs. Magoi is the word in the Gospel of Matthew, and they were members of a religious cult who studied the stars in the Empire of Persia. It must be remembered that astrology was regarded as a respectable science in that period. Indeed, it was the astrologists who laid the foundations for scientific advances in later ages. For the Jews of the first century the Magoi belonged to a different religion, a different civilisation, a different culture and a different empire. Representatives of the exotic other came to recognise Jesus as the Lord. But these were turned into monarchs by the establishment in order to respect the regime. ‘Look,’ they said, ‘royalty was among the first to recognise Jesus, and having done so they went back to their countries to reign once more’.
In telling the story of the nativity, Matthew and Luke’s intention is to declare that something remarkable has happened with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Something that has transformed the history of the world. One has come to the world who through his life is going to show the character and personality of the Creator to humanity, and do so in a way that the common people, like us, will understand and be able to identify with. He came to the world as a human being, one born like any other.
The circumstances of the birth demonstrate to the world on whose side God is. Jesus was born into a poor family in circumstances of poverty. Luke tells us that it was the poor of society, the shepherds, who were the first to be informed of the birth. Matthew tells us that it was others, ‘foreigners’, who were among the first to recognise him. Both authors of the Gospels tell us that Jesus was born in the unremarkable village of Bethlehem, a village not far from Jerusalem, the capital, home of the powerful and the rich. The king Herod, his court and religious organisation were ignored at the temple in Jerusalem, when Jesus was born. God is on the side of the poor and the people of the periphery, those oppressed, those who suffer.
This truth is emphasised by Mary in her song known as the Magnificat; in it she expresses her understanding of how God operates, and what he wants:
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
As he tells the story of the shepherds Luke uses special titles such as ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’ as the messenger (angel) describes the newborn baby, and the Angel’s song emphasised this was a way of peace. These were titles belonging to Caesar in Greek culture (Luke was aiming his commentary at the Greeks), and Augustus Caesar boasted that it was his way that established peace. Luke deliberately challenges that mentality, and Matthew stresses in the story about Herod killing the children in Bethlehem, that the response of the rich and powerful is one of fear, hatred and cruel violence. This, in truth, is the way of the powerful. That is not the path of civilisation and hope.
It is not Caesar’s way that is going to bring justice and peace to the world, but the way of Jesus.
The great battle of our lifetime and the responsibility of our generation is to convince ourselves and our friends who still believe that the path of Constantine and Augustus, of the rich and powerful, is going to solve the world’s problems – indeed save the world – that this is not the case. It is the way of the Creator that is ’embodied’ in Jesus that will do so.
And that is the true meaning of Christmas.
Image: “Wales Window”, Birmingham, Alabama gan John Petts