Vol. 1, Issue 8
December 24, 2006
Merry Christmas! and a Happy New Year too. This issue of Scholegium focuses all of its sections on the meaning of Christmas. Later issues will return to the broader meanderings of literature, history, and books. There will be no Scholegium issues until next weekend, so we here at Schola wish you the best for all the coming Christmas week. I hope you enjoy today's bouquet of musings.
Please pardon me if you've received this twice. Merry Christmas twice.
IN THIS ISSUE:
1) COGITEMUS: Who was born?
2) DE ASTRIS: The Star of Bethlehem
3) ANNO DOMINI: Christmas Day Collect
4) SIC LOCUTUS: John the Apostle
WHO WAS BORN?
You can find more discussions of the history of Christmas in books and on the internet than you can shake a stick at, were you so inclined. There are interesting arguments about the date of Christ's birth (probably not December 25, but so what?); about when and where Christmas began to be celebrated (early or mid fourth century in Rome, spreading to the Eastern churches soon thereafter); about the propriety of the church establishing holy days in the calendar where pagan festivals used to be (more on that in a coming issue of Scholegium, but I say the more of that sort of thing the better!); about the legitimacy of enjoying cultural myths like Santa Claus (the original, real St. Nicholas is said to have physically slapped down the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea... so be good for goodness sake); and about the value of church traditions (liturgies, festivals, etc.) that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture (since they're literally unavoidable, the real question is how, not whether, to use them).
But the fact remains that the Christian church throughout history, with some exceptions here and there, has used Christmas to highlight a central fact in our common faith -- that the second person of the Trinity, God Almighty himself, became a man in the reign of the emperor Caesar Augustus, in one of Caesar's recently acquired territories in the eastern Mediterranean, being born miraculously of a young Jewish virgin (the early church held her to have been about 12). When Mary's cousin Elizabeth calls her the "mother of my Lord" or when doubting Thomas calls Jesus "my Lord and my God" they were witnessing to the fact that he who was born of Mary was not just a man but Almighty God himself as well. This is why Mary was called Theotokos (God-bearer) by the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century -- not because they thought she was the originator of the essence and fullness of deity, but because she gave birth to him who was not just a man, but God and man in one person. This is also why Athanasius said that God became man so that man might become God -- not because he thought we would share ontologically in the divine essence (c'mon, the guy was smarter than *that*!) or because he was a Mormon, but because he believed with Peter that we "become partakers of the divine nature" through our union by faith with Him who united our humanity and God's divinity in his own person. If this last bit (called "theosis" by our Eastern Orthodox friends) seems a little too weird to us Protestants, note that our own John Calvin was quite happy with it (see for example http://www.quodlibet.net/tan-union.shtml). So who was born? GOD was born. Or, to be more accurate, the One Who was born was God.
If Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, was not both very God and very man without mingling or alteration of either, then the celebration of Christmas is meaningless as a Christian commemoration. As Paul said of the doctrine of the Resurrection, if it's not true then our faith is in vain and we of all men are most to be pitied. But if he *was*, then our celebration of Christmas ought to be a little less frantic and a lot more joyful *and* triumphant.
THE CHRISTMAS STAR
The star mentioned by Matthew which indicated to the Magi the location of the Child Jesus has been the subject of debate since, well, since Matthew wrote. St. John Chrysostom, in his Homily on chapter two of Matthew, says that the star must have been supernatural, not one of the natural celestial phenomena. If this is the case, astronomers can have nothing to say about it. But many other people, including of course astronomers, have argued that it was a natural phenomenon. There were some conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in the years around Christ's birth, and in one of them, Jupiter also evidenced retrograde motion where it appears to stop. It would, in this particular instance, have stopped over Bethlehem. But it would have appeared to have stopped over quite a bit more territory too - Bethlehem is a pretty small target for a planet to indicate.
But most of the discussion completely ignores the other celestial phenomena that night -- the host of heaven that came down that night to sing at a bunch of stunned shepherds. The phrase "host of heaven" is used in the Scripture of both celestial bodies and of the angelic armies. When the heavenly host -- the stars -- came down to sing to the shepherds, those shepherds didn't see a lot of wispy, night-gowned, golden-haired beauties. They saw a warband, the Armies of God, whose songs probably sounded like Alfred the Great's Saxon armies shouting terrifying renditions of the Psalms before wading into the enemy and chopping off their heads. The host which the shepherds saw were the sort that might have had "82nd Airborne" tattooed on their biceps and sleeveless leather vests, with chains and bandoliers and sawed-off shotguns clanking in the night air while they sang mighty whoops of "Glory to God in the highest!" in a chorus that made the roughneck shepherds turn to terrified jelly.
Was this a conjunction of planets? No. The stars came down to earth and then when they were done terrorizing the shepherds they went back into heaven "from whence they came". The stars. Ok, yes, I know, but there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosopy.
THE CHRISTMASTIDE COLLECT
The Collect for Christmas Day (and all the following week) in the Book of Common Prayer "is of all the Prayer Book Collects the most notable for its theological content, for the whole of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are encased in it" (The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary):
"Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen."
[The Book of Common Prayer I've been referring to in all these Scholegium posts, and will continue to refer to unless otherwise noted, is that of the 1928 edition of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A.]
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
--Gospel of John