Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas and Apologetics: A Very Merry Mithr-Osiri-Saturnalia-Solstice-Mass to You!

Yesterday on the Michael Medved show his guest, David Silverman (president of American Atheists,) began his discussion on why wishing "Merry Christmas" to secular people was intollerant with a rather slippery argument regarding the historical dating of Christmas. Now, there are plenty of good resources to help sort all this out in a well-reasoned manner and with plenty of historical/apologetic related information. Before we get further on to Silverman's argument here they are:
  • In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter and the Early Church by Paul L. Maier.
  • Christmas is Not Pagan by Dr. Richard P. Bucher; a four part article available at the following links: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4.
  • Is Christmas Pagan? By Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason, available here.
And now back to our regularly scheduled post. Silverman made the claim that the sole reason Christians celebrated Christmas on December 25th was because of the pagan festivals surrounding the worship of the unquenchable sun-god, that it's all really a copy of pagan myths about virgin births and celebrations of the winter solstice. Therefore, as he argued, the real holiday (a word he ironically used and stuck with) that should be celebrated is the winter solstice because that's the real reason for life on the planet and the ultimate answer to the mystery as to why Christians date Christmas to December 25th, namely, they had co-opted the pagan festivals for their own use.

However, this is only partially true. And even it were, what does it really matter? Two separate historical events can have similar dates, circumstances surrounding their events (assuming the events in question are real and not mythical) and still remain. For example, there are many historical pecularities (of a factual nature) surrounding the life and death of presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (For example, they both had a lazy eye, both died on a Friday before a holiday, both had a child that died during their presidency). And yet no one is claiming that the Lincoln story was plagiarized to create a 20th century mythical American martry named, John F. Kennedy. Nor does it mean that JFK ceases to exist because of similarities (albeit odd and bountiful ones at that) in historical events surrounding these two presidents.

The other mistake so commonly made by skeptics of Christianity when connecting the wild theories of conspiracy with pagany myths is one simple fact. Myth and history are two entirely different things. Hopefully you don't watch Family Guy or Southpark for your nightly news. And you may not even depend on the nightly news these days either. The point being, that the myths of the ancient world were recognized as such. And furthermore, the Gospels do not carry with them this mythic sort of genre about them. Luke 2 does not read like a fairy tale, but a history lesson: places, names, and so forth. Which reminds me of a quote from C.S. Lewis - someone who knew a thing or two about myths and legends:

“When a man tells me that the Gospels are myth, or legend, or romance, I should like to know how many myths, legends, and romances he has read, and how well he is trained in detecting them, for he would seem to lack necessary literary judgment  about the texts he is reading.  I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life.  I know what they are like. And I know that not a single one of them is like the story found in  the Gospels.” 

Now, back to the date of Christmas. Again, even if the early Christians did select the date for Christmas near the celebration of the winter solstice they did so not to co-opt pagan worship practices but to replace them with the celebrations of the true God who actually had taken human flesh and skin and bone and had entered human time and history, unlike the gods of the Roman pantheon. In this way the Christians counteracted (and acted counter-culturally) the pagan celebrations of "light and sun" with the true Light of the World (John 1) and the Sun of Righteousness that whom we confess in the O Antiphon for December 21st, "O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death." For he dwells not in unapproachable light but in the flesh and blood of the man Jesus that we might "behold his glory" (John 1) and see and touch and bear witness to him (1 John 1).

But this may not be the only reason for the celebration of Christmas on December 25th. In recent years another explanation has come to light (pun intended). In his recent book, Heaven on Earth: The Gifts of Christ in the Divine Service, Dr. Arthur Just reports the facts:

"In the ancient world, it was uncommon to for people to know the date they were born. But the day of death was recorded, especially for people of renown. As early as the third century, many Christian communities thought March 25 was the day Christ was crucified, the day of the spring equinox. March 25 was also considered the first day of the new year, for many thought that on this day the creation of the world began. This united the creation and the redemption in their minds. The next logical step was to suggest that Christ died on the day He was conceived, as was the custom in this culture where birthdays were not known but the date of the death of a great person was always celebrated. It seemed natural that the day you left the world was the day you entered by conception. Good Friday, the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, and Christmas all belonged together, or at least they did for the ancient world, for this combined Jesus' incarnation, birth and atonement. Thus Christmas falls on December 25, nine months after His conception and His crucifixion." (emphasis added).

It would have been nice for both the host and guest of radio show to have been familiar with the facts before commencing to argue about them in circles for some time. Anyhow, that's all the time we have for today's installment of Christmas and Apologetics. A blessed feast of Christ's mass to you all.

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