21 December 2017
The adoration of the Magi is depicted in this icon by artist Ayman Fayez. The observance and celebration of Christmas vary around the world, with some places putting greater emphasis on Epiphany, and the visit of the Three Kings. (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
Christmas is the most beloved feast in the Christian calendar. We see this again and again throughout the world CNEWA serves, with varying traditions and customs in different regions. This is true even if it is not the most important feast — which is, of course, Easter.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast these two feasts and how they are observed.
Christmas and Easter differ in many interesting ways, beginning with the date.The entire church year revolves around Easter, which is the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Although it is always a Sunday, it can occur on any date between the first and second full moon of spring. The reason for this is that it is known that Jesus died on Friday the 13 or 14 of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. Christmas, on the other hand, is always on the 25th of December. The date for Christmas, on the other hand, is arbitrary, since nowhere in the Bible is it mentioned on which day or even month Jesus was born. The December date for Christmas was probably chosen to replace the Roman Saturnalia and other pagan celebrations which greeted the “return” of the invincible sun (sol invictus) after the winter solstice.
The feasts also differ in their liturgical observance. The liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are unique and occur only once a year, but the liturgy at Christmas is really no different from that of any major feast with its own readings and prayers.
Then there are scriptural differences. The events of Holy Week and Easter are recounted in each of the four Gospels and echo throughout the entire New Testament. The conception and birth of Jesus, however, appear only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and are quite different from each other.
Matthew, for example, has the story about the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the innocent children and the flight into Egypt. This Gospel also mentions that the Magi visited the Holy Family in a house (ὀικία Matthew 2:11).
Luke, on the other hand, makes no mention of the Magi, the massacre or the flight into Egypt. For Luke, the fact that Jesus is lying in a manger (φάτνη Luke 2:7, 12) is a “sign” to the shepherds in the field at the time of the birth.
Perhaps because of the varying accounts in the Gospels, Christmas is much more open to creative expression and observance. That is perhaps one reason why it is celebrated so differently around the world. In some parts of the Western Church the emphasis is strongly on 25 December; in other parts of the West, the focus is placed on the Epiphany, the feast of “Three Kings.” But were there really just three? Matthew does not say how many Magi visited the Holy Family — over the centuries, the tradition has been as high as fourteen! — but, the number three has become standard for the simple reason that there were three gifts. No one came empty-handed.
The very “openness” of Christmas to attract to itself new and different traditions is sometimes lamented and even condemned. While things certainly can get out of hand, for the most part, the “adaptability” of Christmas is, I believe, very much in line with what this great feast is about.
Christmas is the celebration of our belief that the Eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became human, i.e. “one (tested) like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Over the centuries some Christians have attempted to deny the full humanity of Jesus and hold that he only “appeared to be human.” The Church has always rejected that but has not always appreciated its full meaning. As the feast celebrating the humanity of the Word of God, Christmas shares in all those things which are human — diversity, adaptation, change, a certain unpredictability, even messiness. If Christmas is, in a sense, the most physical and bodily feast of the Christian calendar, that is because it is supposed to be precisely that — the celebration that God has taken on our nature, our physicality in all things but sin.
The Eternal Word was made flesh — and that is what Christmas is about.