I don’t believe in the word “cannot.” So when I was in seminary and was being taught liturgics it was hard to accept that we were not allowed to sing Christmas carols before Christmas. For me, Christmas was a special time and since I was sixteen represented life and hope more than the gifts and food. So I did not get Advent the way they were teaching it. I guess to some extent I still don’t. For me, I think the greatest expressions of faith are often the most simple. So why make it so complicated?
As I started to look at Advent and its origins, I became more fascinated with Christmas and its origins. Since Christmas was not an original celebration of the church, what brings it into existence? What is its importance?
Christmas enters the Christian calendar around the 3rd Century A.D. It was first suggested by Clement of Alexandria to be May 20, though it does not garner consistent recognition until the late 4th century as the debates over the divinity and incarnation of Christ begin to escalate. Until that time the Epiphany celebration, which represented the incarnation or when God’s spirit enters Christ at the Baptism, celebrated on January 6 represented the “Birth” of Christ. Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Christ and the beginning of his ministry. Through the 3rd and fourth centuries many dates are used to mark the Christmas celebration, though by the end of the 4th century the settled date was December 25.
The rise of the Christmas over Epiphany can be traced to the debates of the early church between the 4th and 6th century over the divinity of Christ. We can see this escalation in the Nicene Creed, which was written in 325 A.D. and revised in 381 A.D. In this creed they affirmed, “The divinity of Christ, the Son, is of the same substance as the divinity of God, the Father. To hold otherwise, they said, was to open the possibility of polytheism, and to imply that knowledge of God in Christ was not final knowledge of God.” So it is not coincidental that there is also a new emphasis on a celebration that commemorates the divinity of Christ from birth. Thus, Christmas becomes a major holy day.
While much is made over the pagan rituals adopted by the Christians and made part of the Christmas holiday, the reason for the rise of importance probably has much more to do with the expression and assertion of Christ’s divinity rather than the conversion of pagans to Christianity as some recollections make it out to be. Historically speaking, the modern inception of Christmas is just that, modern. Many of our celebration date back only a few hundred years.
As for Advent, it comes into existence in the late 6th century and like the time of Lent; Advent was a time of fasting and penitence. Today, we also make a connection that Advent is not only a time of waiting for Christmas, but also a time of waiting for Christ’s coming again. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the message of Christmas is far more important than the message of Advent, and while we all need to be reminded to be patient, I think that it is far more important that we are reminded of the divinity of Christ and that God came into this world. If we hold this great witness hostage to the calendar, we end up holding back the great and faithful witness of those around us and the stories and songs of this time.
Have a very Merry Christmas celebrating the joy and life we have because God came into this world as Jesus the Christ.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen