Church feasts often coincide with earth’s cycles

Father John A. Kiley

A couple of weeks before Christmas, the Providence Journal featured an article on its religion page that highlighted a few Protestant communities that reject the celebration of Christmas.

While the repudiation of Christmas by mainline American churches is rare nowadays, this was not always so. Early American religious settlers often despised Christmas on the grounds that the feast was too papist, too Catholic. Modern church communities that eschew Christmas claim that the feast is too pagan, too rooted in nature rather than on Scripture. While it is true that the celebration of Christmas began a lot later in church history than the observance of Easter, commemorating Christmas is actually a development that highlights the very essence of Christianity.

Although the day and month of the first Christmas are not recorded in Scripture, the event itself certainly is. Sts. Matthew and Luke give ample testimony to the arrival of the Son of God into this world as a man born of Mary. The Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, commenced at the Annunciation and brought to its fulfillment on the day of Christ’s birth, is certainly worth celebrating. After the Council of Nicea, when the union of Christ’s divine and human natures was solemnly defined, Jesus’ birth into this world was certainly worthy of commemoration. The ancient church, in its wisdom and backed by Jewish precedent, adopted an already-popular event, the winter solstice, as an appropriate, if arbitrary, date to rejoice in the Word made flesh. What could be more appropriate than to celebrate what the poet George Herbert called “love’s noon in nature’s night”?

The pagan world marked late December’s longest night and shortest day as the return of sunlight to the earth. From that late December day until the end of June, the days would grow longer and warmer and more fruitful. Light and life would enter into human history once again after a few dark weeks of darkness and seeming death. This was not witchery or Satanism or idolatry. This was simply human nature expressing its hope that life on earth would be fruitful once again.

Just as the divine Son of God took on a human nature and filled his body and blood with his divine personality, so the ancient church took on natural, human celebrations — spring, summer and fall harvests, the vernal equinox and the winter solstice — and adapted them into the Christian calendar. The Jewish community had done this, of course, centuries before. Passover, Pentecost, Yom Kippur, even Hanukah celebrated the great events of salvation history in conjunction with the natural cycle of the agricultural year. The ancient church, like the ancient Jews, capitalized on all that was good in human nature, all that was good in primordial traditions, all that was good in earth’s natural calendar. Like Jesus adopting a human nature, the ancient communities of faith took man’s natural, annual cycles and exalted them, endowing them with eternal significance. After all, grace does not shun nature. Grace builds on nature. This belief is at the heart of Catholic Christianity.

Unlike Calvinistic Protestantism which viewed human nature as depraved and corrupt, Catholicism always understood human nature to be merely deprived and weak, needing to be redeemed rather than repudiated. Calvinistic Protestantism severed all contact with Christianity’s human roots — no saints, no statues, no sacraments, no decorations, no cycle of celebrations, no bishops, no priests, and certainly no pope. Calvin and his constituents embraced Scripture alone as the sole rule of faith — anything else was from the evil one. The Christmas baby was thrown out with the corrupt human bathwater.

Christmas and the other feasts of the church’s calendar year are a pious endorsement of the basic goodness of human nature and the earth’s cycles. Humanity is flawed, but not irredeemably so. The grace of God, won by the man Jesus Christ, ennobles all that is earthly, all that is created, all that is human. Through grace, time becomes a window on eternity and the believer can see hidden in the celebrations of this world the mysteries of the world to come.