We know that the early church leaders responsible for setting up the liturgical calendar in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries didn’t get the day or even the year right. Biblical scholars now cite several possible reasons for the choice of December 25th as Christmas Day. A winter holiday period in the ancient Roman Empire or nine months following another traditional date, the Annunciation, which was believed to have taken place on 25th of March in the Roman era year 753 are among them.
The actual birth year needs to account for King Herod’s presence in the Nativity narrative in the Gospel of Matthew. Herod’s well-recorded death occurred four years before the year that was later pegged for Jesus’ birth and which also marks year 1 of our Gregorian calendar today. So the second millennium actually started at least four years before it is popularly thought to have begun.
The compounded word Christmas itself from the Old English ‘Cristes Maesse’ for Christ’s Mass, has just been around a mere 1,000 years or so. Despite all the errors of timing and slow evolution of the blended Christmas celebratory customs from the Germanic tree to the Greek mistletoe and Turkish gift giving, the underlying message, so well captured by the Christmas carole It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, remains central to it.
Written by Edmund Sears, a Unitarian pastor from Massachusetts, in 1849 It Came Upon the Midnight Clear proclaims simply and clearly a core message of the season marking Jesus’ birth, Peace on the earth, good will to all. Reverend Sears’ lyrics recognized then, as we do now, that this very much proclaims a work in progress.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, some 200 million people inhabited this small, blue planet of ours. Today there are nearly 7 billion of us. The average life expectancy at birth in the Roman Empire has been estimated at between 22 and 25 years. The average number of years that a person can expect to live today because of dramatically lowered infant mortality, improved health, hygiene and diet, comes in at around over 67 years globally according to the experts at the CIA who give us The World Factbook.
Universal institutions like slavery and 90 per cent illiteracy rates deprived all but a small percentage of the population in 1 A.D. of what today would be regarded as basic human rights. A Roman woman had only a limited form of citizenship and very restricted rights. They were subject to the almost total control of their ‘paterfamilias’ or male head of their extended family. A foreign woman found herself even more vulnerable.
Not ignoring our incredible progress in many areas we still find ourselves living in a world torn by strife. It is provoked in large measure by gross inequalities, ancient animosities, prejudices and basic human failings like greed. These still mirror the reality of Jesus’ day. Our world spends well over $1.5 trillion annually on war and preparations for war. This is while three billion people on the planet live on $2.50 a day or less and are most probably denied basic health care, housing, food security and clean water. This is in a world lurching on the edge of an environmental precipice threatening us with the probability of cascading calamities. This is in a world where consumerism blinds the affluent to the needs of others even neighbours around them and prevents them from seeing a way to a better world for all.
Still we hope.
“Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not
The tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife,
And hear the angels sing.”
Merry Christmas to you and yours and, of course, may we all strive to bring alive that hope of ages. Listen to that glorious song of old, “Peace on the earth, good will to all.”
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.