Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Coming of Christmas – Part 1

Dionysius Exiguus

I found a nice second hand book on Christmas Traditions from 1931 at the Guide Dogs for the Blind biggest book sale, and as Christmas approaches, thought it might be interesting to share it with my readers. Although it dates from 193, the author was well-informed and a good deal of his history, which is judicious on matters of ignorance, stands up well with modern scholarship.

The Coming of Christmas – Part 1
by William Muir Auld

Christmas as almost everyone knows is the annual festival of the Birth of Jesus Christ the Founder of Christianity; but not so many are aware that the traditional date of this important event, 1 A.D., stands greatly in need of correction.

The mode of reckoning time "by the year of our Lord," now well-nigh universal in the modern world, was originally introduced by Dionysius Exiguus, who lived in Rome during the first half of the sixth century. Before his day, and until the new system of chronology won general acceptance, happenings were recorded in various ways. Some Church historians took the birth of Abraham as a convenient starting point; others, more commonly those in the West, computed from the founding of the City of Rome (ab urbe condita or anno urbis condite), usually designated by the initial letters A.U.C.

Dionysius made his New Era to begin on the first day of January in the seven hundred fifty-third year from the building of Rome; because in that year he supposed Christ to have been born. Whenever in his writings he desired to indicate the number of years which had elapsed since the Advent of the Saviour he employed the phrase Anno Domini; and through him it became current.

His calculations were adopted with little or no inquiry until the sixteenth century. Since then they have been shown to be wrong by several years. It has proved, however, much easier to detect the error of the learned monk than to correct it; for there is no certain way of arriving at the truth. The Gospels afford practically no decisive assistance.

The most useful hint occurs in St. Matthew where it is stated that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King." According to the best authorities this monarch died a short time before the Jewish Passover 750 A.U.C.

It will be evident at once that Dionysius in assigning the Birth of Christ to 753 A.U.C. placed it at least three years too late. Following the slender suggestion of the sacred Evangelist it ought to antedate the death of Herod; but to what point anterior to that occurrence it should be carried no one can say. Some are disposed to place the Nativity of Christ within the years 748 and 747 A.U.C., that is 5 and 6 B.C.; though others are led by their investigations as far back as 8 B.C.

A similar uncertainty exists in regard to the season of the year to which the epoch-making Birth belongs. In the early Church this provided a fascinating subject for the ingenious mind. Unfettered by any authentic tradition speculation assumed the most fantastic forms. Working with an abstract plan of the ages writers strove to show when they thought the Saviour of the world ought to have been born, striking often a peculiar preference for the twenty-fifth day, though not always agreeing in their choice of a month.

But, as has often been pointed out, there is no month in the calendar to which even "respectable authorities" at one time and another have not been disposed to refer the sacred Birth. The world will never know when that Babe first opened His eyes, whether in the radiant morn of spring, the meridian splendour of summer, the evening glory of autumn, or the bleak midnight of winter. It may be true that Rome would not order a census to be taken, as the Gospels suggest, at the worst possible period for travel, and perhaps truer still that the incident of the shepherds watching over their flocks by night on the plains of Bethlehem calls for a milder time than the inclement month of December; yet immemorial tradition has now irrevocably rooted the Holy Nativity, and with singular propriety, in the heart of the cold, dark season of the year.

As John Milton wrote, so the world is content to think:

It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born child
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies.

It is interesting to observe that the process of festival creation in the Christian Church, which dates almost from its inception, began at the end of Christ's life and ministry and slowly worked back to the beginning; so that an observance of His Nativity was comparatively late in making its appearance.

As for the first believers they had not the slightest interest in anything of the kind. They looked forward and upward, seldom, if ever, backward. For them the past contained no treasure that the present did not hold in far richer degree; and the future was bright with all-engrossing promise. Hope in the Lord's imminent return from heaven in great power and glory was the flame that fired their devotion, especially when wrapt away from the world in hours of secret fellowship.

At such times, when concordant hearts yearned for the grand denouement, all retrospect was precluded, and even a song of Bethlehem, had it been thought of, would have struck a jarring note.

The thrill of anticipation found more natural expression in impatient invitatories flung by eager voices toward the dark and silent sky: Let Grace come and let the world pass away!
Hosanna to the God of David, Marana that Come Lord Jesus, come quickly!

Even in much later times when Christians learned to look back as well as forward, and began to estimate aright the historic treasures of the Son of Man, they had small concern in a Nativity Festival.

While profoundly interested in the Man Christ Jesus, their thought and affection did not as yet include the Child Jesus. Though speculation might run high concerning the Natal Day of the Saviour, that did not mean any deep human appreciation of the Birth in the stable at Bethlehem, nor any great desire to feast it. In fact the very idea of such a celebration appeared to many highly repugnant. It looked too much like regarding their divine Redeemer after the manner of an earthly potentate.

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