The Nativity Feast Day

It’s Historical Development in the Orthodox Church

Sources Two parameters of knowledge are required in researching the sources of the Nativity Feast: a) For the first three centuries, the ancient Church recognized only one Feast Day, the Lord‟s Resurrection. The celebration of Pascha formed an important part of the Christian holiday calendar; the pre and post Paschalion. This process, however, doesn‟t favour the creation of feast days, chronicles of distance from Pascha, as in the case of the Nativity. b) The Gospel narratives concerning Christ‟s birth do not designate the time of the salvific event, but they do provide indirect evidence for the exclusion of winter months as the period for Christ‟s Birth. Moreover, during the 2nd century AD, the attempts of the heretic Basilides‟ followers to set their Nativity Celebration on April 19th or 20th—and later May 20th—was based on this data. The First Four Centuries In light of these findings, the total lack of testimonies concerning the Nativity Celebration during the first four centuries of the Church is not surprising. The interesting and simultaneously problematic area is focused on when, where, under what conditions and for what reasons the Nativity Feast Day appeared during the 4th century. The study of this subject requires a complete knowledge of the sources. It should be mentioned that at least until the mid-20th century, researchers‟ opinions were in opposition with one another (as the eminent historian, Fr. Dölger, noted in 1940). The historical section should reach up to the 2nd century AD, where there are some interesting elements for our theme. The celebration of Epiphany on January 6th by a branch of Gnostic heretics appeared in Egypt and Arabia sometime around 120-140 AD. The date selection is associated with pagan solstice celebrations; i.e. the Feast commencing the day‟s dominion over the night. The honour towards the „conquering sun‟ is linked to ancient mythological elements, but the heretics‟ efforts consisted in the Christianization of the pagan feast. In the 2nd century AD, St. Clement of Alexandria relates in his work, The Stromata [1, 12, 146 ], “The followers of Basilides are accustomed to celebrate the day of the Lord‟s Baptism and they keep vigil all night on the eve of the celebration, reading biblical passages. According to them, the Lord‟s Baptism occurred in the 15th year of Tiberius‟ reign, on the 11th or 15th of Tubi,” i.e. the 6th or 10th of January. With regards to such information, it should be added that these Gnostics believed the Logos‟ Incarnation occurred during His Baptism in the Jordan. Therefore, Basilides‟ followers had all the reason to celebrate both events simultaneously—of Christ‟s Incarnation and Baptism—on a specific date. Although it appeared through the initiatives of heretical Christians, the Church adopted the Feast of Theophany. The report that Emperor Julian invaded a temple in 361 where “the Christians celebrated the Epiphany,” is one of the testimonies of its establishment. However, our search relates to when the Feast of Theophany was separated and distinguished into the specific Nativity Feast.

The First Testimony The Chronicle of 354 (AD) is a very little known—if not completely unknown—source of ecclesiastical history. This was an expensive book of the age; it was calligraphed and decorated by the Greek calligrapher, Furius Dionysius Filocalus after a wealthy Christian named Valentinus ordered it. The author started the Chronology in 336 AD and finished in 354 AD. The book contains two birthday lists; one for bishops (Depositiones episcorum) and one for Martyrs (Depositiones martyrum). The celebration of Christ's Birth on December 25 is mentioned in the last list.2 This is the first relevant testimony, leading to the conclusion that the Nativity as a special feast on December 25th was established in the Church of Rome between the years 330-335 AD.

The choice of date is subject to the same rules as the determination of Theophany in Egypt: This is the pagan celebration date of the “invincible sun (Sol Invictus),” the feast of winter solstice (according to astronomical terminology)—namely, the victory of light over darkness, provided the increase of day over the burden of night had started. The celebration of the “Invincible Sun‟s” birth was exceptionally disseminated in the ancient world through the Cult of Mithras. The source of the Roman ecclesiastical initiatives is evident: the Gospels emphasized that the born Lord was the “Sun of Righteousness” and the “Light of the world” (Jn. 8:12). Thus, the birth of the “real Sun” replaces the “birth of the created sun.” New Ecclesiastical Proposal It should also be noted that when the Nativity was being established as a special feast day, idolatry was making one last effort of resistance against Christianity centered around solar worship. The Christian activation wasn‟t related to a syncretism between Christian worship and the Mithras Cult, but rather to the emergence of essentially: the Birth of “the Sun of Righteousness” Christ is the only source of hope. However, the following event is akin with the Roman Church‟s initiative for a special Nativity feast day: In 321 AD, St. Constantine the Great decreed Sunday as a day of rest with an edict. The “Day of the Lord” replaced the pagan “day of the sun,” which was used as a term, even by Christians, up until then (see St. Justin Martyr‟s Letter to the Pagan Emperor Antoninus Pius [ca. 155 AD], where he writes that the Holy Eucharist was performed, “on the day we call day of the sun.”). This event did not function only

as a previous substitution of the created sun by the real Sun, but reveals that he had inaugurated an ecclesiastical proposal that favoured the initiative of establishing the Nativity as a feast day in place of the corresponding pagan feast of the sun (indeed, St. Constantine saw this proposal as unifying the two religious worlds). Of course, the subject that concerns our liturgical tradition of the Eastern Church focuses on pin-pointing the adoption time of the Roman initiative. We know that at first, around 360 AD, Christian North Africa celebrated the Nativity according to the Church of Rome‟s tradition. In 386 AD, St. John Chrysostom gave a sermon concerning the Nativity Feast, stressing that this celebration was established a decade earlier: “The Day of Birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ, until recently unknown, and made known to us but a few years ago by those who came from the West and announced it, is not even ten years ago that this date became familiar to us.” (Homily VI: On St. Philogonius [23-2]). He also emphasized that although it was a new feast, there was a feeling in Christians of its antiquity. The Nativity as a Specific Feast Day Based on St. John Chrysostom‟s testimony, it can be speculated that Christmas, as a specific Feast Day, was established in 376 at the small church of Antioch held by the Eustathians under Bishop Paulinus. In 386, it was introduced to the large church of Antioch that was held by the Meletians and Bishop Flavian. It is clear that the Church of Constantinople adopted the specific Nativity feast day in 379 AD, as judged by St. Gregory the Theologians Orations 38, 39 and 40. In his 38th Oration, St. Gregory indicates— already by the title—the evolution of terminology: Logos on the Theophany, or the Birthday of Christ. It‟s obvious that the term “Theophany” is being used for the first time as a declarative of the Nativity. In this oration, St. Gregory announces that the forthcoming celebration would be the Lord‟s Baptism and extolling his message, the Nativity celebration: “A little later on you will see Jesus submitting to be purified in the River Jordan for my Purification...Now then...respect His birth...honour Bethlehem...and venerate the manger” (Oration 38:16 & 17). St. Gregory‟s 39th Oration titled On the Holy Lights, declares that the January 6th Feast Day is now focused on Christ‟s Baptism. In this oration, he references the “previous” Nativity Feast that they celebrated with splendour, and the content of the Festival of Lights is exalted: “At His Birth we duly kept the festival... Now we come to another action of Christ and another mystery... Christ is illuminated!...Christ is baptized!” (Oration 39:17). The 40th Oration is particularly revealing because it refers to the Baptism of the faithful the following day, January 7th: “Yesterday we kept high Festival on the illustrious Day of the Holy Lights... today let us discourse briefly concerning Baptism.” (Oration 40:1). The Separation of the Holidays This last testimony of the 40th Oration is revealing. Around 380 AD, January 6th was consecrated as the third day of the year (after Pascha and Pentecost) when baptisms would be performed. This fact forms one more reason for separating the Nativity Feast Day from the Epiphany Feast Day. It‟s characteristic that in his panegyric Oration about St. Basil the Great (Homily 43; delivered in 381 AD), St. Gregory the Theologian describes the Feast Day of Theophany by St. Basil the Great in Caesarea in 372 or 373 AD. In this report, no mention is made about the different celebration, data confirming that the separation of the Feast Days took place between 373 and 381 AD. Some development in terminology took place during this period: The term “Theophany” approximated the Nativity event more, thus facilitating the smooth

disconnecting of the two Feasts, whereas the meaning of January 6th was now exclusively the Lord‟s Baptism and the Baptism of Christians that followed. It‟s also characteristic that St. Gregory wrote the 38th oration around 379-380 AD, at which time the two Feasts had already been separated: “Of these on a future occasion; for the present the Festival is the Theophany or Birth [day], for it is called both, two titles being given to the one thing. For God was manifested to man by birth... The name Theophany is given to it in reference to the Manifestation, and that of Birthday in respect of His Birth” (Oration 38:2). The Message Determines the Date The conclusions are clear: In Antioch of Syria, by the end of the 7th decade of the 4th century, the separation of the Nativity from January 6th (the common feast dating back to the 2nd century after the initiatives of some heretical group). The reason behind using December 25th was to contrast the pagan feast of the “Invincible Sun” and due to the appointment of January 6th-7th as a baptismal day. The separation of the Feasts had taken place in the Church of Rome around 330-335 AD. The Nativity Feast thus became the axis of determining all the other feast days associated with Christ‟s Birth: March 25th, the Annunciation (9 months before); September 23rd, the Conception of the Forerunner; and June 24th, the Birth of the Forerunner. This is why we conclude that the Nativity constitutes the axis of forming immoveable feast days, just as Pascha determines moveable feast days. This calendar procedure demonstrates the essence of the liturgical year: the Nativity Feast doesn‟t comprise a remembrance determined by a strict calendar framework; but rather the message determines the date. The Meaning of the Feast The celebration of Christ‟s Birth as a specific feast day was gradually adopted by all the major centers of the Christian East: in Constantinople after 380 AD; in Alexandria around the end of the 4th century; and in Jerusalem during the 6th century. During the 5th century, Jerusalem‟s liturgical practice influenced the Armenian Church‟s parallel (as is evidenced by the famous Jerusalem Lectionnarium), resulting in this ancient Church maintaining both the Nativity and Theophany on January 6th. The historical contexts of the Feast Day‟s creation didn‟t overshadow the significance it acquired, directly at first, in the conscience of the Christian Churches. The following words of St. John Chrysostom express this truth vividly: “A feast is approaching which is the most solemn and awe-inspiring of all feasts....What is it? Christ’s Birth according to the flesh.” (Oration on Philogonius). Notes 1) Περιοδικό «Πειραϊκή Εκκληζία», ηεύχος 163, Δεκέμβριος 1995 2) The reference in question states, "VIII kal. ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeæ". It is in a section copied from an earlier manuscript produced in 336. This document also contains the earliest known reference to the feast of Sol Invictus.

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