The Making of the Advent Tradition
David Meserve, Urban Skye
Since I’ve rediscovered Advent, something new grabs me each year. Usually, it is a character in the Nativity Story. A few years ago, I became fascinated with the way the ancient Church created Advent in the first place. The story, as I understand it, goes like this…
The Church of the first centuries had become increasingly populated by Romans. Many of the lower caste found new freedom in Christ, but so did those of aristocracy (especially woman of influence). As the Church has always been seasoned by its surrounding culture, Roman seasoning overtook their original Jewish flavor.
One of the reasons the birth of Christ was not celebrated in the early centuries was the prevailing thought that only pagan kings celebrated birthdays. This was Origen’s logic. He was an early Church Father who recognized that only Pharaoh and Herod had birthdays mentioned in the Scriptures (and Herod’s party ended rather badly with John the Baptist’s head on a platter). Therefore, the impetus for birthday celebrations of kingly figures did not carry much Christian weight. Eventually, the culture influenced the Church and the desire to honor the birth of Christ their King increased with time.
They just needed to know what day of the year to honor.
Unlike the Jews who based their calendar on a lunar cycles, the Romans based theirs on solar activity. In the ancient Roman calendar, the Spring Equinox on March 25th (March 20th for us) held a sacred status. It symbolized for them creation and new birth. Christian scholars began to apply this to their Christian faith. A Roman Christian, Hippolytus, concluded that March 25th was, in fact, the day of Creation, the one where God says, “Let there be light!” Tertullian, a 3rd century African Church Father, then applied it to the birth of Christ. We were on our way to celebrating Christmas in March.
Enter the story my favorite name in church history: Sextus Julius Africanus. Known for nothing else, as far as I can tell, Sextus took the creation idea literally. He argued that that if March 25th was the day of creation, it should apply to Christ’s conception rather than His birth. He began to add the nine months of pregnancy into the equation and landed on the Winter Equinox of December 25th.
In truth, we don’t know how much pull Sextus actually had in dating our Christmas. There are other significant factors suspected as reasons, most of them having to do with the Christian celebration countering pagan feasts at that time of the year. We do know that by midway into the 4th century the Feast of the Nativity was considered the beginning of the liturgical year. By 385 A.D., a church council document reveals that the Nativity celebrations were preceded by a season of preparation – our Advent - as the first of four annual fasts.
What strikes me is how inaccurate the dating of Christmas as December 25th must be. But the crazier thing is this: it doesn’t matter. The desire to honor Christ by celebrating His birth is infinitely more important than nailing the date.
It has taken me back to that enigmatic blessing Jesus bestows upon Peter (found in Matthew, chapter 16). When asked, Who do you say that I am? Peter gets it right: You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus comes out of His sandals to bless Peter. But, His enthusiasm was not for Peter getting it right; it was how he arrived at it that got the blessing:
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Peter is blessed because he listened and heard from God. The process was honored. Like showing your work on a math equation, how you come to your answer is as, if not more, important than arriving at the right one. That’s what I appreciate about the suspect dating of December 25th as Christ’s birthday: our Church Fathers are honored for their process and heart and we are blessed for it.
Final thought: Peter becomes the archetype for those who would guide the Church in the centuries to follow. By listening and hearing from God, the Church with all her imperfections, inherits the privilege of creating binding traditions Once the Church decided on December 25th and the Advent that precedes it, it is written and it is done. We don’t need to argue the date but enjoy God’s blessing that comes to all who honor what God has created through the Bride of Christ, the Church.
Let the liturgical year begin.