Why do we celebrate December 25th as the day of Jesus’ birth? A popular theory says December 25th was a Christian attempt to replace a pagan festival honoring the Unconquerable Sun. More likely, December 25 was chosen because it was tied to March 25th, the day some early Christian sources say Jesus was conceived and crucified.
Andrew McGowan advocates that theory in Biblical Archeology.
“ There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.
“Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.”
Matthew’s gospel reminds us of the fate awaiting this Child by recalling the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem by King Herod shortly after Jesus birth. Joseph takes the Child and Mary his mother into Egypt to escape the hand of Herod. Luke’s gospel recalls the warning Mary receives in the temple that a sword will pierce her heart.
What is true of Jesus is true of his church. The day after Christmas is the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr, a sign for those who would follow Jesus. But that sign is followed by the feast of St. John, the apostle, he saw the Risen Christ, even on the Cross.
Artists like the one who painted our picture above– which is honored by my community, the Passionists– also saw the connection. St.Paul of the Cross certainly saw the connection when, as a young man, he made a retreat of 40 days that continued over the Christmas feast. On Christmas Day he said he was “as dry as a stick.”
The mysteries of Christ are joined together. We celebrate his birth, but we also keep in mind his death and resurrection– mysteries never far apart, in him and in us.