By Father Brian Morris
Q: “The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is on December 8th. December 25 is the day we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, by using these dates either the Virgin Mary was pregnant 17 days before birth or she was pregnant 57 weeks before Christ’s birth. Please explain.”
This is a good question because it clears up a common misconception about the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which I wrote about two weeks ago. In defense of the questioner, his question was submitted before my column appeared. But it’s always good to reiterate. The feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the fact that Mary herself was conceived without Original Sin in the womb of her mother, St. Ann. Thus, we celebrate the birth of Mary on September 8 every year, nine months after her conception. The same goes for Jesus. We celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 each year. On March 25 each year, nine months before Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the savior of all mankind. So, Jesus was not a preemie, He was just on time as one would expect from the God made flesh. And His mother was just on time as well.
But since we are on the topic of dates, and it is just about to be Christmas, I thought I’d address the popular question “Was Jesus really born on December 25?” It is certainly possible that this is the exact date of Jesus’ birth, as anything is possible for God. Some scholars have tried to use biblical evidence to line it up. For example, if Zechariah was in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, which is usually around September 22-25, that would mean that John the Baptist was born around June 22-25. And since we know that Elizabeth was six months pregnant when Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel, then that would be six months after September, which is March, and nine months after March is December! Seems to work.
Some scholars even contend that the date of December 25 comes directly from the Virgin Mary herself. She was there after all! And that she told the Apostles, who then handed down that date to the Fathers of the Church and so forth. The earliest written account that explicitly mentions Christmas on December 25 is from St. Hippolytus of Rome who lived from A.D 170-235. Although the church was still in the catacombs during those times and it wasn’t until A.D. 350, once the church was legalized across the Roman Empire, that Pope Julius I finalized the date in the universal calendar.
Other scholars have tried to say that the Christians chose December 25 to counter pagan feasts that were prominent during the time of the Roman Empire. Some say that it was placed to counteract the five-day harvest festival, Saturnalia. However, if anything, it would be fitting to say that Advent counteracted this pagan holiday, as it always ended a few days before December 25. There was also the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, “the Birthday of the Sun” which was celebrated by the Romans on December 25. It was instituted by Emperor Aurelius in A.D. 274, but as we saw above, December 25 was mentioned by the church Fathers long before then. So perhaps rather than the Christians trying to counteract the pagans, perhaps the pagans were trying to counteract the growing Christian sect. There is certainly an interesting connection between the birth of the false “sun gods” and the birth of Christ who is the light of the world.
So, in the end I would answer that I cannot prove to you beyond a doubt that Jesus was really born on December 25. I like the theory that Mary would have told the Apostles that date in the formative years of the church, and that it was handed down, as was much of our faith at that time. But the most important thing to remember is that God became man. As one of my favorite Christmas songs says: “The world cried out so desperately, and the baby boy was the reply. Yes, Heaven’s reply was a baby boy.” The Son of God so humbled Himself to the point of becoming a helpless baby, born in a humble stable and into a poor family. And that baby boy would go on to win the war against sin and death, to give us hope, and open up the gates to His Heavenly Kingdom to all. Merry Christmas.