The day before Christmas was a hectic one. Father was worried by bundles and burdens. Mother’s nerves reached the breaking point more than once. The little girl seemed to be in the way wherever she went. Finally, she was hustled up to bed. As she knelt to pray, the feverish excitement so mixed her up, she said, “Forgive us our Christmases, as we forgive those who Christmas against us.”
We sometimes concern ourselves with things that early Christians and Apostolic Christianity could care very little about. The Annunciation and Epiphany were, together with Easter the more important festive seasons in the Church. Come to think of it, the birth of Jesus was merely a subsequent stage of God’s Son taking on a body. The real miracle had happened nine months before Christmas.
In the second century teachers like Irenaeus and Tertullian didn’t know Christmas as a feast. Although the birth of Christ and the accounts surrounding it were passed on from the very start, beginning with the shepherds, there is no indication that the early Church celebrated Christmas as such. Origen of Alexandria (Sermon 8 in Leviticus) asserted that in Scripture sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday. We might add that on the only occasions in the Bible that birthdays are celebrated someone is killed as well (Pharaoh butchered the baker and King Herod presented the head of St John the Baptist).
Some today ridicule Christmas as a feast created and enforced by fourth and fifth-century emperors and bishops to counter and sanctify pagan festivals, such as that of the sol invictus, the conquering sun. There is no need to share this dismissive sentiment; my personal feeling is that its date in December is rather a consequence of the season of Annunciation in the end of March. But even so, if owing to the date of former pagan celebrations, people were now focussing on the Sun of righteousness rising with healing in his wings (Malachi 4:2) instead of orgies and bowing to idols, that is wonderful too. This image of the sun was applied to Jesus hundreds of years earlier by many Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Hippolytus. But also in later days, the Church made it clear that this was spiritual imagery and had nothing to do with sun worship.
A few early quotes to meditate on in this Christmas season:
And God the Word was truly born of the Virgin, having clothed Himself with a body of like passions with our own. He who forms all men in the womb, was Himself really in the womb, and made for Himself a body of the seed of the Virgin, but without any intercourse of man. (Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians)
Behold the Lamb of God! For since Scripture calls the infant children lambs, it has also called Him—God the Word—who became man for our sakes, and who wished in all points to be made like to us—”the Lamb of God”—Him, namely, that is the Son of God, the Child of the Father. (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor)