By Rev. Jason P. Peterson, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church
In recent years, it seems to have become fashionable, even among Christians, to think that Christmas day falls on December 25 because of some 1700 year old conspiratorial compromise with Roman pagans. However, this is a claim that neither has adequate evidence nor fits with known history.
Many people do not realize that the date of Christmas on December 25 was never intended to commemorate the precise date of Jesus’ birth. A handful of ancient Church Fathers defended the possibility it might be precise, based on John the Baptizer’s conception on Yom Kippur (late September) and Mary’s visiting Mary 6 months later (therefore late March) about the same time she conceived Jesus, but the date of December 25 is more significant for its role in illustrating the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in the rhythm of the Church’s year.
This begins with the common recollection of early Christians that the day on which Jesus was crucified was March 25. Because it was not customary for the Jewish people to record birth dates in Jesus’ day, they popularly believed the date of a person’s death coincided with their conception date. By this reasoning, Jesus’ conception began to be celebrated on March 25 of the Roman calendar.
Out of this eventually developed the complete Church Year, which celebrates the date 9 months after March 25 (December 25) as Christmas—the birth of Jesus. Then through its various seasons the Church remembers the events of Jesus’ life during the first half of the calendar and His teachings during the second half of that calendar.
Of course, Christians understand that neither Jesus’ birth, nor celebrating it on the correct calendar date, are what saves a soul. Instead, we celebrate the birth of Christ because it is the concrete event where God’s salvation first becomes visible to His creation in the person of Jesus. In the early Church, the Annunciation (the angel’s announcement which caused Jesus’ conception in the Virgin Mary) was actually revered of more highly than Christmas, because they recognized that the significant event was already full and complete as Jesus was already fully God and fully human from the moment of His conception—a truth Christians refer to as the Incarnation.
However, we celebrate Christmas because of the same significant truth, which is that God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus. God the Son voluntarily allowed Himself to be conceived, born, grow, and mature in the normal course of human life. He became fully human so that by taking on our flesh He could stand in our place both in life and in death.