I have bad news: the Christmas-debunkers of youtube and internet blogs are right: December 25th is NOT the birthday of Jesus Christ.
I have bad news for those debunkers, too: that little fact is not the “Gotcha!” that they think it is. We Christians really don’t care on what day or month of the year Christ was born. Birthday memorialising as we know it today is a very modern custom. People in the twenty-first century developed world celebrate birthdays regardless of the birthday-person’s social status, or of whether the birthday person has accomplished anything of importance. Even babies get birthday parties. But in the ancient world, what mattered more to common folk was what they did with their lives, not the particular date on which their life started. As Lutherans, we believe that every substantive matter of faith is contained in Holy Scripture alone, and Scripture says nothing of Jesus’ birthdate. The historical record shows that Christians did not even start speculating about that date until the stable animals who observed the event had been dead for a hundred and fifty years. And even then, the dates that they speculated about were in September, May, and April! Celebrating Christmas in December is a deliberate choice made by the church in the fourth century, not because anybody believed that was “Jesus actual birthday”, but because in “Kairos” – in that continuous circling of sacred time that brings us around again and again to the truth of God’s redemptive acts throughout all history – we find ourselves repeatedly called to celebrate the pivotal historic moment when the God the Word, the True Light, chose to be born into the darkness of a world that did not recognize him. That is a truth that we feel most sharply, and by which we are most comforted, at the time of year that is least comfortable: the time of year when humanity is coldest and hungriest, and this complicated, difficult world is at its darkest. We, the church, choose to celebrate Christmas, Epiphany, and Candlemas – the Church’s historical three great “Festivals of Light” – at the darkest time of the year, precisely because it is in the darkness that we most need the Light of Christ.
You may also hear Christmas debunkers arguing that the winter solstice was “originally” the Feast of Saturnalia (it was not), or the Roman feast of the Immortal Sun (it probably was), or the Celtic feast of Yule (it almost certainly was.) In fact, we can find any number of cultures who celebrated some sort of festival on the darkest day of the year. That does not justify any claims that the church “stole” the date from any other feast. Rather, it speaks to the truth that all humankind, not just the people of God, are made with a yearning for the Light. What sets the people of God apart is knowing that only the Word of God is the ultimate light-bringer, not only to us, but to all of creation. In the timeless waiting before the existence of matter, energy, and time itself, God Spoke, “Let there be Light!”, and with the primordial big bang of the Word, light blazed into being. God set the worlds spinning through the cosmos; God set the sun in the sky and the axial tilt on the planet Earth, and thereby created solstices and equinoxes, the cycle of the seasons, and the annually recurring dark days that turn our hearts back to God. And then God offers to us God’s Light, given to us freely by Grace Alone: Light that we receive through no merit of our own. In the same way, as Simeon goes about his daily routine in first-century Jerusalem, he is powerless to seek out for himself the Light that he has been promised. He can only wait. So, too, the prophetess Anna: she keeps herself ready with prayer and fasting, attuned to God, waiting perhaps for decades for whatever God chooses to reveal to her. And then one day, not in response to their efforts but simply in the fullness of God’s time, the Light appears to them in the person of a forty-day-old baby. We don’t know what day it was that this occurred. It was almost certainly not the second of February, since that’s forty days after the 25th of December, and we’ve already acknowledged that wasn’t Jesus’ birthday. What we can say, is that it wasn’t any particular Holy Day. If it had been a holy day, Simeon would likely have been at the Temple anyway: the Holy Spirit would not have had to guide him there. The patient, waiting faith of Anna and Simeon filled every moment of their lives: Holy Days and Ordinary Time. Simeon could have refused the Spirit’s urging, turned his back because the Light came on an inconvenient day, focussed on weekday-appropriate work or family or recreation. But they remained open to God’s will; and, to their immeasurable joy, they beheld the Light of the World.
We too are privileged to bask in the Light of the World when we come to divine service on Sundays, and are uplifted by the music, the liturgy of readings, preaching and prayers; and the fellowship gathered here. Years ago at a different church a lady said to me “I feel as restored by attending church as by spending time at the country club.” We can be proud if our humble worship measures up to country-club standards, I guess? But for Simeon and Anna, the Light of Christ meant so much more. Simeon’s song of praise declares
“Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace
According to your promise
For I have seen with my own eyes
The deliverance you have made ready
In full view of all nations
A light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles
And glory to your people Israel.”
The Light is for so much more, than just for warming the people who were blest to receive it. It has the power to bring glory to Israel, but moreso, it is for “all the nations”. Anna immediately understands what that proclamation implies: she begins at once to speak of the child to everyone who will listen. The Light, once received, urges to be taken out into the world. This is the focus of the Church’s second great festival of Light, Epiphany, on January 6. Epiphany, which literally means “Face Outward!” is also known as the Feast of Kings; the kings of course being a symbol of the whole world of non-Israelite nations who nonetheless kneel at the feet of the Israelite Babe of Bethlehem. For us here at Emmanuel, the whole world is gathered into these neighbourhoods of south-east Calgary. Our striving for pastoral partnerships over the past year have brought us that clarity: we belong here, in Dover, Forest Lawn, Erin Woods and all. We come from these neighbourhoods, or by our membership in Emmanuel we choose to be part of these neighbourhoods, and it is in these neighbourhoods that our mission lies. They are complicated neighbourhoods, no longer simple assemblies of working-class families of European extraction. Fashionable condos like those going up beside the church and overlooking the riverbank to the west attract younger professional couples and singles; while subsidised housing to the east shelters single-parent families with subsistence incomes. Elderly residents in care facilities and retirement communities, who have spent a lifetime in Canada, can look across the street and see immigrants from around the world moving into the neighbourhood bringing with them culture, language and religion that we do not share or understand. On the east edge of Erin Woods a beautiful new First Nations school has been founded, for the first time fulfilling in good faith the treaty promise of equal and culturally-respectful education for First Nations children, and challenging those of us from Settler and immigrant backgrounds to understand and reconcile with yet another set of cultural differences. And yet, all these different cultures, religions and social classes belong in these neighbourhoods too, because this is where they are making their homes. Our mission is to take the Light of Christ out into all of this complicated, disconnected neighbourhood. And it won’t be as easy as saying “come to church with me this Sunday!” in order to build up our church. Of COURSE, invite people to come to church, and OF COURSE make welcome any newcomers you see in church. Make them welcome even if they come up the front steps ten minutes after the service has ended looking for the Iglesia Christiana that doesn’t rent our space anymore – as actually happened a few weeks ago. Invite them even if they are Muslim or Daoist and just want to see what a church service is like. But most of our new neighbours are not going to come to church, and we need to find ways to take Light to them anyway. Inviting them for other reasons – youth events and clothing exchanges and Stampede breakfasts, and partnering with community association projects, are a start. Praying for them is always an option – as is praying for ourselves to discern how and where God calls us to be Light-bringers. We need to be Light-bringers who respect their cultures and faith and even their lack of faith; Light-bringers who divest ourselves of judgement; Light-bringers with the humility to repent of the hurts Christian churches and Canadian institutions have inflicted in the past, and still sometimes inflict. Humility is one of the Holy Spirit’s great gifts, and if we have the humility to repent of harm in which we had no active individual responsibility but only the responsibility of belonging to the larger society that inflicted the harm, then our humility glorifies God. Harm, judgement and disrespect oppose the Light. If we bring light in one hand, and disrespect in the other, we can expect our neighbours to turn away.
Which brings us to Candlemas. The proper name for February second is “The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and as with most of the holy days that are set to a particular calendar date rather than specifically to a certain Sunday before or after Easter, we are transferring the prayers and lessons to the preceding Sunday in recognition of the reality that people generally aren’t interested in church services on weekdays. We did the same thing with Epiphany, focussing our Carols and Lessons service on the 31st of December on the Epiphany and the Kings who came to worship the baby Jesus; and we typically do the same thing for Reformation Day, October 31; and All Saints Day, November 1, transferring the former back to preceding Sunday and the latter to the following Sunday. We ought to be a little more careful with this practice. Sundays are already holy days: they are feasts of the Lord Jesus Christ, the weekday of His resurrection, every Sunday a “little Easter”. The only holy-days that should transfer onto a Sunday are holy days that are also feasts of the Lord, in this case the feast of His Presentation. An ancient tradition on Candlemas is to let all lights and fires in the house burn out – or in a modern house I suppose, simply turn them off, and then attend worship and then process home from worship with a lantern lit from the altar-candle, singing hymns to the Light of the World. The Light is brought into the people’s homes, and from that Light the fire is rekindled and the lamps are lit. Even in our modern cities, that is a beautiful custom. Everyone loves songs and candlelight. Walking through the neighbourhood with candles and songs brings faces to the windows of the houses you pass, raising a curiosity about Christ in the neighbours who notice, and nurturing in the children who process beside you a fearlessness about letting their faith be seen and known. But the great power of Candlemas is in choosing to bring the Light into our homes, into our most intimate spaces and into our relationships. Mary and Joseph, with their eyes opened to the Light that has been entrusted to them, simply return home. Could anything in their home be the same to them after that? Everything, from sweeping the floors to planing a board, would from then on be illuminated by the Light they were entrusted with, consecrating every simple everyday action. We are similarly entrusted with the Light that we have received, and we are privileged to bring it into our homes, our hearths, our hearts and our relationships. Our homes, consecrated to Jesus, the Light of the World, become places of welcome and fulfilment. The Light, drawn deeply into our selves, burns away any disrespect, pride, and judgmentalism that can cast shadows on the work we do for Christ. Our hearts, illuminated by the Light, increase daily in the Spirit more and more – and the Spirit sends us out again, again bringing Light into the World.
We are saved – brought into the Light, joined with Christ and with one another – by faith alone, by grace alone, and not by anything that we do. And then the Light drives us out as Light-bringers to the world; and calls us inward to bring the Light more deeply into our lives. We cannot sustain an outwardly-focussed ministry of Light if we are not nurturing a light-filled life. We cannot live deeply in the Light if we do not let it carry us outward to serve. And we cannot choose to do neither, without squandering the freely-given Light of Christ. In the words of Saint Paul (Ephesians 5:8-14): You used to be like people living in the dark, but now you are people of the light because you belong to the Lord. So act like people of the light and make your light shine.