Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My Home Town

Well, it's Christmas Day. We have finally tied up all of the packages with bows and finished the baking and all of the other making and it's time to settle down and just look and listen, maybe read the paper, call some friends and family in far away places, watch the kids or grand kids playing with their new toys, maybe have one more piece of that fudge or fruit-cake.

What a crazy ride it is every year, just getting to this day, and then it is all over, and we put away the ornaments and take down the lights and forget about the baby Jesus until next year. I hope that's not the case with you. I hope that you will keep Jesus in your life through the winter and spring and through summer and fall. I hope that you will follow him all the way down the dusty road... through the Judean hills into Galilee and back again to Judea and then finally up to Jerusalem for Passover and out there to that lonely hill called Golgotha. I hope you will wait for him outside of that borrowed tomb and rejoice in his Resurrection! You can follow him through God's Word. If you read a few chapters every day you can read through the whole bible in a year. You can follow him in the Holy Spirit if you will believe in him and be obedient in christian baptism.You can follow him through Faith and fellowship with the body of Christ. You can follow him all of the way home, if you just choose to stay with him and follow him wherever he leads you, because if you follow him, he will lead you home... to the only true home that we have.

I wrote this poem one day after reading another poem, a much greater poem by a much greater poet. My humble poem was inspired by G.K. Chesterton's "House Of Christmas" (You can read his wonderful poem on my 12/9/12 post on this same blog). Christmas is about going home isn't it? Christmas isn't very joyful without home and hearth and loved ones near. Christmas is about being home. Ultimately, that's what this whole life that we live is about... finding a home. Chesterton says it so well:

To an open house in the evening,
Home shall all men come,
To an older place than Eden,
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless,
And all men are at home.
The trick is figuring out how to get home again... how to find our way back home, to our "home town". The answer of course is simple, just follow Jesus. Simple, but not so easy... huh? Merry Chrstmas, y'all. Here's hoping and praying you find your way home thru the darkness. You're gonna need a light.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. - Isaiah 9:2

In my hometown nobody’s homeless.
There’s rooms galore, everybody’s got jobs.
No orphans, no lonely, no mobs.
In my hometown no one goes hungry.
There’s feasts everyday, and sweets a plenty.
Nobody is in pain and nobody lies.
Nobody is bewildered and nobody cries.
There are no cops, cause there’s no robbers.
There’s no regulators, cause there’s no need.
Everyone lives in harmony,
No hatred, no lawsuits, no greed.
I aint never been there. I aint never seen it.
But I know there’s a place for me there.
My future is won, see I know the boss’s son.
His Word and his promise I bear.
Sounds pretty good, now don’t it?
Why don’t you come along?
I’ve got his word on it,
And he’ll never steer you wrong.
Don’t waste your time looking for it,
Because it’s a place beyond time and space.
It’s on a distant shore, in another land,
A place of majesty, grand.
There’s just one way to get there,
And it’s a long hard journey.
You can’t buy a ticket,
Nor can you work your way,
And even if you sold all you had,
The fare’s too much to pay.
The road is narrow and steep,
Rocky and rough, thru mists dark and deep.
A rough wooden cross marks the way.
It shows us the toll’s been paid.
There is no win without cost,
Our victory’s won thru his sacrifice made.
And we are to follow and bear our own crosses,
Planting them where we are told.
Helping our fellow along the way,
The weary, the young, and the old.
The fork to the left looks easier, straighter.
The fork to the right, less dangerous, lighter.
But keep to the narrow way,
Enter friend by the straight gate,
And you will win your prize one day.
One day, over a rise, beyond the last hill,
Steeples and spires in a golden vale,
And we will arrive at the gates of pearl,
Trumpets will blow, and banners unfurl,
Angels parading, legions of millions,
Creatures of wonder, heavenly minions,
Announcing our coming to the Lord’s host.
Where the meek rule, and the least are most.
Burdens will be lifted, backs unbending,
All weariness, pain and fear, ending.
And we will be clothed in robes of white,
Crowns will be placed,
Radiant, shining, cleansed in light.
And we will live by a glassy sea.
And God will wipe away our tears.
Eternal rapture it will be.
Forever in his presence near.
Together, forever, you and I.
Beyond the rainbows,
Beyond the sky,
Lies my hometown.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Coming

May The Lord bless your gatherings this Christmas Eve. May his Spirit abide with you. May he watch over your coming and going in safe journeys. May his light illuminate the darkness of this fallen world in which we reside for now. May he provide plenty amidst famine. May he provide healing amidst sickness. May he mend the broken-hearted. May he bring forgivness amidst the hatred. We thank you Lord for coming and we joyously await your reappearing.
The Coming


A cold winters night,

A strange heavens light,

An uncharted star,

A beacon, so bright.

A backwater town, forgotten by all,

Save those who remember, those who hear,

The ancient voice of the prophet’s call.

Stars glisten,

Brilliant, shining.

Angels listen,

Poised, pining,

Ready to rush,

Terrible beauty,

Waiting and watching,

Sentinels duty.

Shepherds waking,

Startled, quaking.

Hearts pounding,

Chests heaving,





The stillness is broken,

A child cries.

Satan shudders,

Knows his doom,

Regrets his lies.


A Child is born,

A Son is given,

The Son of man,

The King of Heaven.


Come to save us.

Jesus child,

The gift God gave us.




                                                                                                December, 2007


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mary's Song

 A lullaby for thee I sing,

Whose ears have heard heavens voices ring.

A manger low for thee to lie,

Whose hands have wrought the earth and sky.


The angels look in awe and wonder,

That God has sent his son down yonder.


Oh what wonder now I feel!

That God has sent his son to heal,

The wounds of sin, the souls of men.






Saturday, December 22, 2012

God Loves you, Merry Christmas!

I'd like to tell you a story about a very special person. For the sake of the story, we will just call her "Susie".

Susie has had a hard row to hoe. She is a single mom. She has some physical disabilities. She is blessed with a loving mother, but is from a fractured family. She is well acquainted with poverty. She has struggled with sin in her life, including chemical dependency, among other things.

Despite these challenges Susie is blessed beyond measure. She is blessed because she is a disciple of Christ. She is a living example of the love of Christ and what it is and what it does in the world, and what it means to call yourself a Christian. She is also a teacher... not because she is a biblical scholar or a great preacher, but because she shows the love of Christ in her life. That's the most important kind of teaching in the world. Edgar Guest said, "I'd rather see a sermon than hear a sermon". By that he meant, I'd rather see someone living Christ than talking about Christ. The bible tells us to be "doers of the Word" (James 1:22). That's what Susie is. She is a doer of the Word. She is a doer of Christ.

Let me tell you why this is true. Susie is a member of a church. Sometimes she has trouble making ends meet and so now and then her church family provides some help to her. A while ago her church family gave her some gift cards to buy food and other stuff at some local stores. One day Susie was at the store buying some things for her family and when she was done she walked outside and on her way to the car she spies a person in the parking lot. It's not important to describe this person. It's not important to describe all of the signs that presented themselves to Susie. Suffice it to say that what Susie saw was a person who was in need, a person who needed help. A brother/sister in need (which is to say, a stranger in need). So what did Susie do? She reached into her pocket and she pulled out one of the gift cards that she had received from her church family, and she handed it to this person in need and she said, "God loves you, Merry Christmas!".

Now I want you to think about that for a minute. This girl didn't have enough money for her own family, but she gave of her wealth to a stranger! She didn't have a surplus of wealth to give away, but she had something more important. She had a wealth more important than money. She had Faith! Her faith in Christ resulted in an outpouring of agape love, which resulted in her sharing this gift. A gift of true love. Now no one knows the impact of her gift, no one that is, except the person who received it and God. Susie's faithfulness may have had an impact far beyond the few dollars that were received by that stranger. Who knows what affect that love gift and those words of encouragement had on that life, at that moment in time? God knows. He knows, because he works through us to do good in the world. He works through us to show Christ to those who are still in darkness.

Now it isn't much of a hardship for most of us to give gifts to those that we love, and we don't mind giving gifts of charity to those in need, through the office, or through church. We hear the bell ringers and we drop a few coins into the little red pot when we come out of the store, and we feel good about what we have done. But what if we decided to give of our wealth... to really give to those that God presents to us. What kind of difference might we make in the world if we really gave of our treasure? What a difference could we make if we decided to give like Susie did! Jesus makes note of this kind of giving. The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus' observing and commending this kind of sacrificial giving by the widow in the temple (Mark 12:41-44). If a "widow's mite" can be used of God to make much good in the world, imagine what God would make of our gifts, if we would just give them. Imagine what good would be done in the world if our faith were as mighty as the faith of the great ones... like the widow, like little Susie.

Give to a stranger and then tell him, "God loves you, Merry Christmas!"

Give a gift this Christmas. Give of your wealth. Give of your time and talent. Give without expecting anything back. Give without anyone knowing. Give a gift like he gave to you... like he gave to me.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Without Cathy

I lost a really good friend about ten years ago. I still think of her often. I tend to think of loved ones past during Christmas. This one's for you, Cathy.


Christmas will be a little dimmer, a little less joyful for me this year, since I lost a good friend. Cathy loved Christmas and all that goes with it. She loved to laugh and sing and talk… maybe even gossip a little. She loved late night television shopping on the Home Shopping Network. She loved good food, good music and good books. She loved life.

 Her humor and cheer were infectious. When Cathy laughed, everyone laughed. It was simply irresistible.  I often came to see her, with the intent of cheering her up, to minister to her, if you will. I would usually leave feeling a little guilty, knowing that I was the one who had benefited most.

She was the bravest person that I have ever known. She refused to be defeated by disease, or suffering, or lost freedom of movement. She knew the true value of things that I take for granted every day. She woke up, faced her situation, and lived her life every day with love, courage, and vitality, in spite of the difficulty and the pain.

Most people approach the age of 40 with some degree of trepidation. Cathy considered it a personal victory. Every day of life was a new record for her, a personal best, as they say in the world of athletics.

I know that I shouldn’t be sad, because Cathy isn’t here to see another Christmas with me. I can’t help it. I miss her. It helps to know that she is seeing her first Christmas in Heaven. I hope that I can share it with her some day.  I can’t imagine what glories are present there to see. I’m sure that Cathy is seeing them all, experiencing the unimaginable delights. I have no doubt that she has joined the choir.

After she has rested a while, I think God will call Cathy to him. I think he might say, “Cathy, I have a very important job for you.” “I want you to teach the angels to laugh.”  No one could be more qualified for the job. Only someone who has suffered can truly be joyful. Maybe that was her secret, Lord knows she suffered so. When I think of her though, I remember her cherubic smile, her sprightly humor, and her laugh. I can still hear it.

 Yea, I think the angels are in good hands with Cathy as their instructor. I wonder what it sounds like, when an angel laughs?



Thursday, December 20, 2012

Rest For the Weary

Christmas is coming and we sing the old favorite carols again. One of my favorites is, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”. It tells of the angels singing on that night when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Wouldn’t you love to have heard that angel chorus? I wonder what it sounds like when angels sing? One day we will hear them.
My favorite verse of that old carol says,

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,

Who’s forms are bending low,

Who toil along the climbing way

With painful steps and slow,

Look now! For glad and golden hours

Come swiftly on the wing

O rest beside the weary road,

And hear the angels sing!

Jesus came to heal creation of all infirmity, to heal it of sin, to heal it of death. In Revelation 21:5 He declares, “Behold I make all things new”. No more tears, no more pain.

Isaiah 40 says, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Let us renew our strength in the Lord, as we remember the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ the Messiah, who died for us, and who lives again and sits at the right hand of God.
Let us shake off our weariness and climb on, in the hope of the unseen promise. Let us be still and listen for the angels voices singing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


As we prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas, let’s remember the wonderful and marvellous way that God came into the world. Let's remember the perfection of God's plan. Let's remember God's amazing Love. Let's remember the profound combination of God's Love with his Truth, without both we are doomed to destruction. Let's remember the reason for the coming of the Christ Child born in Bethlehem.

“But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son…”

He came when God had prepared the world for his coming.

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

He came in a way that we could understand. He came in the flesh. He walked among us. God walked among us again, just as he had done in Eden.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”

He was a gift from God. He was given to us. He was given for us.

Among the gifts that the Wise Men brought to Jesus was myrrh, an expensive oil or resin that was used for burying the dead. Along with frankincense, it was also burned as incense in temple worship. It is clear, that even at his birth, Jesus was already being prepared as a sacrifice for us.

Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Life and the Truth”.

Let’’s remember his Way, the only path to salvation.

Let’s remember more than his birth. Let’s remember his life which was given for us, and his death, which purchased us, and his victory over death, which saves us.

Let’s remember his Truth, the Truth that sets us free.
Let’s prepare our hearts for Christmas.





Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Giving Gifts

We celebrate Christmas by giving gifts to one another. Christians do this to commemorate the greatest gift that the world has ever received, the coming of the Christ Child. Giving gifts is not a new idea that began with Christmas though. A review of the bible shows us a similar custom that began in the time of Esther, the heroine who saved her people from extermination by a foreign king. To commemorate their deliverance from death, the Jews gave gifts to one another and to the poor, as part of their feasting and celebration (Esther 9:20-22).
I love giving gifts! I don’t love shopping, especially during the crazy, crowded Christmas rush (thank the Lord for Amazon!), but I love seeking out needs of those that I love and then finding the perfect gift for them, and buying it and taking it home and hiding it, and then surprising them with it at just the perfect time. I get a thrill from the giving. I get a thrill from seeing the pleasure that they get from receiving it. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” and I say Amen! Now don’t get me wrong, I like getting gifts too! Have you ever thought about why we like receiving gifts? Is it the actual stuff that we want? Maybe a little, but for me not so much really. For me it’s the realization that someone spent their time thinking about me… thinking about what I wanted and needed and then spent their money, or their talent to buy it for me, or make it for me. The gift is really just a token isn’t it? The gift is a token of their love and affection for us. That’s why I like receiving gifts, because I want to receive love, and I like giving gifts for exactly the same reason. I enjoy giving love. Where do you suppose this need to give and to receive gifts comes from, this need to give and to receive love?
The Word of God provides the answer to this question. In 1John 4:19 we read, “We love because he first loved us.” We love because God made us to love. We love because he created us to love. “God is love” (1John 4:8), and we are created in his own image. The Apostle Paul tells us that as Christians, we are created for good works… we are created to love. Ephesians 4:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works”. When we are born again in Christ, we are re-created thru the Holy Spirit, in order to spread the love of Christ in the world, to give gifts. That’s what he made us for!
I began writing this piece a few days before the Sandy Hook school shooting. I have spent these days since the shooting in grief and pain and in prayer. How can we go on talking about giving gifts after something like this has happened? How can we go on with Christmas? How can we go on with our lives? How can we send our kids to school again? The answer comes again from his Word. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). This is exactly the time to go on living in Christ, to go on loving through him. This is exactly the right time to go out into the world and shine the light of the Messiah in the world! This is exactly the time to give gifts of love to those around us, to everyone. Jesus is speaking those words to us. As his disciples we are called to carry the love of Christ to those around us. We are called to give gifts of love to our family, to our neighbors, to everyone. We are called to shine our lights in the darkness of this evil world. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Give the gift of love… now more than ever. Let your light shine. Jesus has brought light into this dark world with his coming. He lives. He loves. He shines. His light shines through us.
“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16, Isaiah 9:2).
Give the gift of Jesus Christ… now more than ever. God gave us the ultimate gift. He gave us his Son, who saves us from sin, thru his birth and death and resurrection.
Now is the time to give and give abundantly, because He has given to us abundantly! Now is the time to live and live abundantly, because He lives!
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)




Monday, December 17, 2012

Empty Places

I pause to think as loved ones

gather round a festive table near.

How Christmas time is bittersweet,

because of empty places there.

Then I wonder how God must have felt,

as he cradled his son, and gently knelt,

and laid him in a manger low,

then looked upon him, far below.

So when we see that empty place,

Consider heaven’s empty space,

Glory must have dimmed a bit,

And heaven shed a tear,

An angel held a candle lit,

When God sent his Son down here.

So light a candle for the Holy Child,

And set a place for him.

God knows the darkness and trembling grief,

That pales your heart so grim.

He knows of our sorrow.

He knows of our tears.

He knows of our loneliness, hunger and fears.

And knowing us, he sent his Son.

And loving us, he sent his Son.

Do we forget the reason why?

He came to die.

He came to die.

From Bethlehem to Calvary,

For you and I.

For you and I.


                                          MJS 12/94 (revised 12/12)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Momens Spent - Auld Lang Syne

This seemed appropriate for today. I have no words of wisdom to share, only prayers and tears.

Moments Spent


We spend our moments heedlessly,

With lovers, and loved ones, and friends.

So little regard for their value,

Until the moments end.


Remember that each moment spent,

Will never again appear.

If only we knew the true value,

Then would we hold them more dear.


How differently we would spend them,

Knowing that these were our last,

Hand to cheek,

Face to face,

Eyes would meet,

Arms embrace,

With urgent, fervent need.

Remember how fleeting is time, and life,

Before they both are past.

Love them today, now and forever,

As if this day is the last.

For the next chance gathering,

In a day, or a month, or a year,

May reveal an empty place,

Instead of a loved one near.

Take time, and spend it well,

For cherished memories made.

Take note, each moment rare,

Before these moments fade.

Treasure the fair golden moments,

Treasure the gift of love sublime,

Before loved ones live only in memories,

Of days of auld lang sine.

                                                                                                M.J. Smith


Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And auld lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We’ll take a cup o kindness yet,

For auld lang syne!


And there’s a hand my trusty friend,

And give us a hand of thine,

We’ll take a cup of cheer to toast,

For auld lang syne.


For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We’ll take a cup o kindness yet,

For auld lang syne!


We two have run about the hills,

And pulled the daisies fine,

But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,

Since auld lang syne.


For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We’ll take a cup o kindness yet,

For auld lang syne!


We two have paddled in the stream,

From morning, noon till night,

But the seas between us broad have roared,

Since auld lang syne.


For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We’ll take a cup o kindness yet,

For auld lang syne!


Robert Burns

          December 17, 1788


(“Auld Lang Syne” means Days gone By)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

His Yoke

Our view should not be right or left, but right and wrong.

Our choice should not be black or white, but darkness or light.

Our care should not be who is greatest, but who is the least,

Not who is first, but who is last.

Our call should not be war! Or peace!

Violent protests, to fight or to cease.

But rather, we should fight for right, and pray for peace.

Our prayer should be for unity in truth,

Our yearning should be for worship,

For innocence in age, and wisdom in youth.

Our call should be for his Lordship.

And all together, with one clear voice,

Hand in hand, and heart to heart,

Our love should bear all things.

Our faith should carry us,

In union we should live,

His love should marry us.

All we are, all we have… given.

Every burden… bear,

Every need, every care,

In us, Christ living!

Because our yoke we share,

With him who made us.

God’s only Son,


Come to save us.


                                                                                    December 2008

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.

Matthew 11: 29-30


And ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! For glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

O Little Town of Bethlehem (4th stanza)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Jesus Birthday – What Date?

Here's an interesting article from Biblical Archaeology Review on the date of Jesus' birth. I'm not too concerned about it, but I like the author's debunking of many cynical myths surrounding this issue.

How December 25 Became Christmas
by Andrew McGowan


Click to view a slide show of larger images and captions.
On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus' birth. Joyful carols, special liturgies, brightly wrapped gifts, festive foods—these all characterize the feast today, at least in the northern hemisphere. But just how did the Christmas festival originate? How did December 25 come to be associated with Jesus' birthday?
The Bible offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus' Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season; in the cold month of December, on the other hand, sheep might well have been corralled. Yet most scholars would urge caution about extracting such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focus is theological rather than calendrical.

The extrabiblical evidence from the first and second century is equally spare: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225). Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as "pagan" practices—a strong indication that Jesus' birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time.1 As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.
This stands in sharp contrast to the very early traditions surrounding Jesus' last days. Each of the Four Gospels provides detailed information about the time of Jesus' death. According to John, Jesus is crucified just as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed. This would have occurred on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, just before the Jewish holiday began at sundown (considered the beginning of the 15th day because in the Hebrew calendar, days begin at sundown). In Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, the Last Supper is held after sundown, on the beginning of the 15th. Jesus is crucified the next morning—still, the 15th.a

Easter, a much earlier development than Christmas, was simply the gradual Christian reinterpretation of Passover in terms of Jesus' Passion. Its observance could even be implied in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7–8: "Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival..."); it was certainly a distinctively Christian feast by the mid-second century C.E., when the apocryphal text known as the Epistle to the Apostles has Jesus instruct his disciples to "make commemoration of [his] death, that is, the Passover."
Jesus' ministry, miracles, Passion and Resurrection were often of most interest to first- and early-second-century C.E. Christian writers. But over time, Jesus' origins would become of increasing concern. We can begin to see this shift already in the New Testament. The earliest writings—Paul and Mark—make no mention of Jesus' birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide well-known but quite different accounts of the event—although neither specifies a date. In the second century C.E., further details of Jesus' birth and childhood are related in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James.b These texts provide everything from the names of Jesus' grandparents to the details of his education—but not the date of his birth.
Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn't mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: "There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar]...And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21]."2

Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus' birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus' birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.
The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus' birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: "Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea."3 In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.
In the East, January 6 was at first not associated with the magi alone, but with the Christmas story as a whole.

Click to view a slide show of larger images and captions.
So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in midwinter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6?
There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).4

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.
Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas's origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus' birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don't think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.
It's not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus' birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn't know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah's birth and celebrating it accordingly.
More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday's modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.
There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.
Granted, Christian belief and practice were not formed in isolation. Many early elements of Christian worship—including eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs and much early Christian funerary art—would have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers. Yet, in the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.
This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don't have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.
The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have know it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus' birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6.7

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus' birth may lie in the dating of Jesus' death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8 But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus' death and his birth.
Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus' conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: "Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered."11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus' birth to the winter solstice.
Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: "For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th."12

In the East, too, the dates of Jesus' conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas. In the East too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus' conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, "The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world."13 Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.e

Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus' birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).
Connecting Jesus' conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel's Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus' conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo of detail from Master Bertram's Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus' death.
The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: "In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born...and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come." (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)14 Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.15

In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus' death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God's redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own too.16

1. Origen, Homily on Leviticus 8.
2. Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145. In addition, Christians in Clement's native Egypt seem to have known a commemoration of Jesus' baptism—sometimes understood as the moment of his divine choice, and hence as an alternate "incarnation" story—on the same date (Stromateis 1.21.146). See further on this point Thomas J. Talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 118–120, drawing on Roland H. Bainton, "Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation," Journal of Biblical Literature 42 (1923), pp. 81–134; and now especially Gabriele Winkler, "The Appearance of the Light at the Baptism of Jesus and the Origins of the Feast of the Epiphany," in Maxwell Johnson, ed., Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 291–347.
The Philocalian Calendar.

4. Scholars of liturgical history in the English-speaking world are particularly skeptical of the "solstice" connection; see Susan K. Roll, "The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question," in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 273–290, especially pp. 289–290.
5. A gloss on a manuscript of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Talley, Origins, pp. 101–102.
6. Prominent among these was Paul Ernst Jablonski; on the history of scholarship see especially Roll, "The Origins of Christmas," pp. 277–283.
7. For example, Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 38; John Chrysostom, In Diem Natalem.
8. Louis Duchesne, Origines du culte Chr├ętien, 5th ed. (Paris: Thorin et Fontemoing, 1925), pp. 275–279; and Talley, Origins.
9. Tertullian, Adversus Iudaeos 8.
10. There are other relevant texts for this element of argument, including Hippolytus and the (pseudo-Cyprianic) De pascha computus; see Talley, Origins, pp. 86, 90–91.
De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis domini nostri iesu christi et iohannis baptistae.

12. Augustine, Sermon 202.
13. Epiphanius is quoted in Talley, Origins, p. 98.
14. b. Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a.
15. Talley, Origins, pp. 81–82.
16. On the two theories as false alternatives, see Roll, "Origins of Christmas."
a. See Jonathan Klawans, "Was Jesus' Last Supper a Seder?"
BR 17:05.

b. See the following BR articles: David R. Cartlidge, "The Christian Apocrypha: Preserved in Art,"
BR 13:03; Ronald F. Hock,
"The Favored One,"
BR 17:03; and Charles W. Hedrick,
"The 34 Gospels,"
BR 18:03.

c. For more on dating the year of Jesus' birth, see Leonara Neville, "Fixing the Millennium,&rd; AO 03:01.

d. The ancients were familiar with the 9-month gestation period based on the observance of women's menstrual cycles, pregnancies and miscarriages.

e. In the West (and eventually everywhere), the Easter celebration was later shifted from the actual day to the following Sunday. The insistence of the eastern Christians in keeping Easter on the actual 14th day caused a major debate within the church, with the easterners sometimes referred to as the Quartodecimans, or "Fourteenthers."

Andrew McGowan
Warden and President of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, Australia, Andrew McGowan's work on early Christianity includes God in Early Christian Thought (Brill, 2009) and Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford, 1999).