Editor’s note: The author of this series is from Hong Kong, and is an author and teacher who serves the mainland Chinese church. Written while she was studying and serving in the United States, it offers a thorough and useful explanation of Advent. It is a good resource for helping Chinese friends, seekers, and young Christians understand many of traditional meanings and symbols they encounter at Christmas, and can help connect them to the historic global church. For other articles in this series on advent, please see the following: Tradition & Faith, Symbolism, and Tools for Advent at Home.
If we trace history, we find that although there is evidence of the 2nd century church celebrating Christ’s resurrection around Easter time (and arguably such tradition could have started in the Apostolic era), there is nonetheless no record of the Church celebrating the birth of Christ during the first four centuries. The absence of Christmas celebration in the early church is perhaps not difficult to understand. Simply put, no one knows exactly when Christ was born. That Christ was born in AD 1 was actually calculated (or miscalculated) by Dionysius in AD 525, based on insufficient historical data.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that when Christ was born, Herod the Great was still alive. But according to some historical records (for example those of the Jewish historian, Josephus), Herod the Great died in 4 BC. Scholars today generally agree that Christ was most likely to be born sometime between 4 or 5 BC. Also, Jesus could not have been born on December 25. In the Gospel of Luke, we learn that when Jesus was born, there were shepherds watching their flocks in the field. In late December, the weather in Palestine neither has pasture for the flocks nor allows one to stay in the field overnight. Given the fact that in an agricultural society, a census was usually done after harvest, scholars believe that Jesus was more likely to be born sometime in September.
That Jesus was born on December 25 was only a legend made popular in the mid 4th century, perhaps by Pope Liberius, and it was recognized only by the Western church about a century or so later. The Eastern church, on the other hand, celebrated the birth of Christ on January 6, traditionally known as Epiphany.
Epiphany (meaning the revealing or appearance) is not a celebration of a specific event in the life of Christ on earth. Rather it is about a specific aspect of Christ’s life and ministry on earth – the manifestation of his divine glory and status. Several themes and events were thus associated with it and celebrated together: the manifestation of his divine sonship as revealed in his baptism, the manifestation of his kingship as indicated by the visits of the Magi, and the first revelation of his glory at the wedding of Cana. Evidence of the early church celebrating Epiphany, also known as Three King’s Day, can be dated to the 2nd century in the writings of Pope Clement. It was mainly celebrated in the Eastern (Greek-speaking) part of the Roman Empire. Although Epiphany was the earliest annual celebration in the church associated directly with Christ’s incarnation, nativity was nonetheless not part of the theme and was only added to it later. One thing needs to be noted here. Contrary to the nativity scene most contemporary crèches indicate, the magi did not show up with the shepherds in the manger on the night of Christ’s birth, but instead arrived about two years later. This is evidenced by the fact that King Herod ordered all baby boys “two years old or under” (Matt 2: 16) to be killed. As you may recall, when the Magi found Jesus, baby Jesus and his mother were no longer staying in a manger, but in a “house” (Matt 2: 11). Perhaps this explains why Epiphany in the beginning included the visit of Magi but not the nativity.
Epiphany was celebrated in many ways: it was a day of feasting (perhaps due to its association with the wedding feast of Cana, and the Old Testament tradition of the covenant community feasting before the presence of God); it was also a day for baptism (an association with the baptism of Christ); and today in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is also a day of gift giving in memory of the Magi’s gifts to Christ. Although associating the nativity with Epiphany came a couple of centuries later, the Eastern church had nonetheless developed a custom of preparation for the Epiphany, which eventually became the tradition of Advent celebrated in the Western (Latin-speaking) church. Since Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of the Son of the Holy God’s glory among men, the early church deemed it necessary to prepare believers’ hearts for the reception of the arrival of such glory. Later in the monastic practices, such preparation of hearts meant penitence and fasting. The same spirit was later adopted by the Western church in their Advent celebration.
It was not until the 4th century after Constantine made Christianity official that the celebration of Christmas on December 25 emerge. Today, church historians, Catholic and Protestant alike, generally share the belief that the Western church’s choice of December 25 as Christ’s birthday had less to do with historical accuracy than with counteracting the Roman pagan culture of the time. December 25 was celebrated by the Romans as the birthday of the Sun-god, Mithras, at the winter solstice. With Christianity being made official, the empire, [still culturally pagan], the church faced a challenge. Should all the pagan holidays and celebrations be banned or should they be replaced/redeemed with Christian meanings?
Perhaps, following the footsteps of the great apostles, the church went for the second option. “The one whom you worship without knowing, him I proclaim to you” (Apostle Paul, Acts 17:23); “The Logos (the Word) that you Greeks believe was Jesus Christ, the very Son of God who was in the beginning with God and through him all things are made” (Apostle John, John 1:1). What the church said to the pagans was that the true light of the world, the real conqueror of darkness, was in fact Jesus Christ who was God but born in man.
Another reason that the 4th century church felt it necessary to celebrate the birth of Christ might have to do with the church’s effort to resist the Nicene heresy of Arianism (325 AD), which denied the divinity of Christ and claimed that Christ was no more than an exalted man, created, not begotten. As the battle moved on, it became natural and necessary to include the birth of Christ as part of the Church’s annual celebrations, as many church historians (e.g., Philip Schaff) have concluded.
Now the Eastern and Western churches had separate days to celebrate Christmas, and since the two days are very close to each other, there then were the twelve days of Christmas from December 15 to January 6. In church tradition, Christmas officially ends on January 6, Epiphany. Most Reformed churches on the European continent retain the tradition of celebrating all of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. During the Advent season, only Advent hymns are sung in the church. Christmas carols are sung from Christmas Day to Epiphany. Our Trinity Hymnal also makes a clear distinction between Advent hymns and Nativity hymns.