March 5, 2009

Plundering the Egyptians

Yesterday I had a delightful meeting with a parishioner who was seeking ways to respond to Jehovah's Witnesses. He seems to have befriended one who has been "working on" him for some years.

Apparently one of the main attacks this Witness makes on ordinary Christianity is the observance of the "man made" holidays of Christmas and Easter. First of all, the days have to be considered separately.

Easter, though it perhaps corresponds to certain pagan festivals surrounding the vernal equinox, is intimately connected with the Passover, which is certainly part of divine revelation. God did not invite the children of Israel to observe the Passover; he commanded them to do so. If you want to believe the Gospels, the Last Supper was or was not the Passover meal, but in any case, the Passion, death, and Resurrection of the Lord is correlated with the Passover in a pretty direct way. So the assertion that the celebration of Easter is a "man made" or pagan observance has no merit.

Christmas is another story. Serious guesses at the birth date of Jesus of Nazareth place it perhaps in the spring of the year we would now call 3 or 4 BC. But it's anybody's guess, really. The commemoration of the Lord's birth, which we celebrate on December 25th, does in fact correspond to various pagan festivals associated with the winter solstice. Putting Christmas in their place assisted the conversion of culture to Christianity and fit astronomy to theology as we celebrate the re-birth of the light of the world. (At least in the Northern hemisphere.)

But do the pagan roots of observing Christmas when we do make it wrong and something to be rejected? And if not, why? Christians have always had the right and privilege to borrow what is helpful from the pagan world, e.g. culture, philosophy, etc., and adapt it to Christian purposes. But where do we get this right and privilege? It is founded on the Christian sense of creation and Incarnation.

The world comes to be through the Word of God. We see this in the prologue of the St. John as well as the first creation account from Genesis: "God said...and so it happened." We believe that this Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. Thus, Jesus is the revelation of the pattern on which all of the divine creative activity is based. Therefore, all created things--as well as art and culture, the grandchildren of God, as it were--somehow point back to the Word of God in their internal logic. We see this very clearly in ourselves in our heart's perpetual longing for love and beauty and intimate union; this is the creative force of God alive within us. From this we see that everything human, evangelized and adapted, can be put into the service of Christ.

Now I woudn't push this line of argument as far as Karl Rahner's famous "anonymous Christianity," which I find a little patronizing, but it does stand up to Sacred Scripture and it is certainly strong enough to justify plundering the winter solstice festivals from the pagans and transforming them into the commemoration of the Nativity of the Lord.


ben in denver said...

Pope Benedict has an excellent and accessible discussion of these dates in "The Spirit of the Liturgy", whch was published while he was still the Prefect for the CDF. Google books has the relevant chapter available online:,M1

Chapter 5, Sacred Time

According to the Holy Father, the December 25th date was determined by the earlier March 25th observation of the Annunciation.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the tip, Ben. I have the book--a welcome ordination gift--and will check it out again. I love the two perfect gestations in the calendar, March 25 - December 25 and December 8 - September 8. But it always makes me wonder, was there ever a feast of the annunciation of John the Baptist on or around September 24, corresponding to the autumnal equinox?

ben in denver said...

There is a fascinating tradition about this that I heard a few years ago from an octagenarian priest, Fr. Vincent Salmon, CM.

There have been 3 people born without original sin, Jesus, Mary and St. John the Baptist, so we celebrate their births. In the case of Jesus and Mary, they never had any sin at all, so we also celebrate the Immaculate Conception and the Annunciation. But tradition suggests that St. John was baptized in the womb at the Visitation when he was "fillied with the Holy Spirit", even though he was concieved in original sin like the rest of us. So we don't celebrate his conception, but we do celebrate his birth.

Brother Charles said...

Excellent account! John the Baptist, sanctified in utero, only has his birth celebrated, not his conception!

Jeff said...

Wow, this is all kind of sad for your JW fellow.... Halos, advent wreaths, "Sanhein" as All Saints Day, certain other dates... Neo-Platonism, Aristotle... Christianity has always “baptized” what was good and useful in the cultures it encountered. It's no surprise to those of us who are familiar with it.

Nowadays it's just called “enculturation." :)

ben in denver said...


While inculturation has brought many blessings to the church, the placement of All Saints on November 1 is not such an example. Samhain is a particularly celtic pagan holiday. Its celbration was confined to Ireland, Scotland and Brittany, has had dwindled to non-existence by 600 AD. Between the 7th and 19th centuries there were no pagans in Ireland. It was 19th century scholarship that resurrected celtic paganism, which had been over 1000 years dead.

The november 1 date for All Saints was fixed in Rome in the 8th century by Pope Gregory III, and later extended to the whole western church by Gregory IV.

Similarly, the Advent wreath is a tradition that developed in 18th and 19th century Germany, and because of its recent orgin, has not pagan antecedent.

You may be thining of the Christmas tree, also of German orgin. Tradition teaches that the Christmas Tree was a symbol given to the Church by St. Boniface to replace the oak tree the people were worshiping and which the saint cut down.

Particularly in English speaking countries, we must be aware of the real calumnies against the Catholic Church that have been committed by protestant historians, who actively sought to identify Chrstian Rome with pagan Rome, and were willing to stretch the truth to do it. We should not forget that Cromwell outlawed Christmas, and that for the early history of Plymouth Colony, Christmas was likewise outlawed.

benin denver said...

wow, sorry for all the typos. I hope my meaning was clear.

Jeff said...

No problem, Ben.

I think the Advent wreath has origins older than the 18th or 19th century, even according to Catholic sources, but I'm in complete and absolute agreement with your larger points. Thanks.

Lee Strong said...

Informative post. Sometimes we get tongue-tied when our Protestant brother and sisters beat on their favorite strawmen. Thanks!

pax et bonum