Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! The debate rages on. Each year we hear more about the so called, “War on Christmas.” This year’s symbolic battleground is a paper cup at Starbucks. You are already tired of hearing about it. A video blogger’s complaint ignited public debate after Starbucks removed the snowflakes from their cups this year and opted instead for a simple red design. The festive cup was apparently not sufficiently “Christmas-y” and showed evidence that the coffee shop had an anti-Christian agenda. What snowflakes have to do with the Christian faith is beyond me. Personally I am disappointed that the cups are not purple for Advent!
The controversy is not a new one. The Christian observances of Advent and Christmas have always existed alongside of, and in tension with, pagan festivals marking the winter solstice which were celebrated at the same time. The Roman emperor Aurelius attempted to consolidate a number of cults and festivals associated with the sun into one festival to Sol Invictus, “the Unconquerable Sun” which many believe was celebrated on December 25.
Although in many ways existing as rivals, the lines between Christian celebration and pagan celebration have not always been easy to discern. There has been significant borrowing, blending, and overlap. This is not in itself a bad thing. Christianity has been in the business of taking up and redeeming paganism from the beginning. Problems happen when the reverse occurs and the Church’s holy days are co-opted by the culture for purposes contrary to their true spirit.
The close proximity between Christmas and these other Pagan holidays, however, has led many to claim that Christmas is merely a pagan celebration with a Christian veneer. Some claim that Christians celebrated the birth of Christ during the Winter Solstice as a way of combating, competing with, and capitalizing on the popular celebrations already in place. The mere fact that these celebrations overlap with Christmas is not evidence that the Church was borrowing from paganism. For instance, there is good reason to believe that Christians were already beginning to honor December 25 as the nativity of Christ long before Sol Invictus became a popular cultural celebration. Some scholars even suggest that Christianity was among the cults that Aurelius was trying to consolidate under his pagan festival.
The overlap between the birth of Christ and the winter solstice is more than just coincidence or pragmatism. The association of Christ with the Sun, has its roots not in Paganism, but in scripture itself. It speaks of the cosmic scope and significance of who Jesus is. The canticle we sang today was taken from the Song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, as recorded in the gospel of Luke. It says that “the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
We read this same text when we celebrate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist on June 24, in the heat of the summer solstice when the sun reaches its pinnacle in the sky and its greatest strength. We do this because John represents the pinnacle of the Old Testament. He is the last and greatest of the prophets. Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist" (Matt. 11:11). The Summer Solstice also marks the time when the Sun, having reached its pinnacle, begins its descent. The age of the Old Covenant has been fulfilled and come to a close; the age of New Testament and the time of grace has begun. Thus John the Baptist says, “I must decrease and he must increase.”
We read it again now as the nights grow longer and the darkness surrounds us. Now the prophecy comes to those who sit in darkness to assure us that hope is rising, and that after the longest night the light shall come to us.
The sun will be at its lowest point on December the 21st. On December 25th, Christmas Day, the Sun will begin to rise again when Virgo, the virgin, is on the horizon. He will come forth from her as weak as a tiny infant, but he is destined to conquer the darkness.
The heavens declare the glory of God. The sun itself is an emblem of Christ. God himself has made it to rule the day. It gives light and life to the whole world. As all life here on Earth depends upon the sun, so is Christ the light and life of heaven. Saint John the Apostle speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem, “There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” This is the day that we wait for in hope and it is this day that is announced in our canticle.
Before the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he appeared to Zechariah. The story is remarkably similar to that of Abraham and Sarah. Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth is barren and advanced in age, yet just as God did with Abraham, he assures Zechariah that his wife will indeed conceive a child. The promise of fertility from barrenness and life from death recurs at both the beginning and the end of the Old Covenant. Just as Sarah laughed in unbelief at God’s promise, Zechariah also doubts and so he is struck dumb until the promise is fulfilled.
Our canticle today picks up the story on the day of John’s circumcision. The extended family, understandably overjoyed at the amazing reversal of fortune that has taken place, have run quite ahead of themselves and are about to name the boy after his father without even consulting Elizabeth! She, out of obedience to God’s instructions, insists that the child be named John. The family will have nothing of her unorthodox rejection of tradition, but they are all shocked into submission by what happens next. The father steps in, siding with his wife and writing on a tablet that the boy’s name is John. All at once his tongue is loosed and he can speak again! Not only that, but he begins to prophesy the most amazing words! The long awaited time of Israel’s deliverance is at hand. God is raising up the promised messiah!
It is not his child, however, who will be the promised deliverer but they are to expect another. He begins to speak prophecy directly to his son,
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,To give his people knowledge of salvation *by the forgiveness of their sins.In the tender compassion of our God *
A new day is coming! He says, “The dawn from on high will break upon us.”
The new day has indeed arrived, but we still wait. Christ has come, and through his death and resurrection the powers of darkness are fleeing in defeat. The light of Christ has broken on the horizon but we wait for it to reach its pinnacle and full strength. We wait for the day that will have no end. Just as John the Baptist and all the prophets of old heralded his first advent, so we as the Church herald the second advent of Christ.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like the darkness always wins, that the story of the world is the descent of day into endless night. It seems like every time I turn on the news, I’m hearing of another mass shooting or the murder of innocents by the wicked regime of ISIS, and I think, “What is happening to the world? What does the future hold?”
God comforts us in our anxiety. He tells us not to lose hope. He lifts up our heads bowed in sorrow. “Stand upon the height,” he says, “look to the east.” The Dawn has broken on the horizon.
We Christians are an east facing people. In the ancient baptismal rites the catechumen would renounce Satan and turn to the east, to the rising sun, the emblem of our Lord, the icon of the Salvation that is ours in him. Churches too were built to face the east. Let us all with raised faces turn to the dawning of the light in Christ. The sun of righteousness is rising with healing in his wings.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheerour spirits by thine advent here;disperse the gloomy clouds of night,and death's dark shadows put to flight.