Jesus: Happy 2011th–2015th?–2019th?…

December 25

Behold! the angels said, ‘Oh Mary! God gives you glad tidings of a Word from Him. His name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter, and in (the company of) those nearest to God.

— Qur’an 3:45

Nativity, Gerard von Honthorst (1590-1656)

Today we celebrate Jesus Christ’s 2011th birthday.

Actually, no.

We don’t know the year Jesus was born. But it’s believed he was born at least four years prior to the year we count as 1 A.D. because King Herod the Great, whom Matthew cites as king when Jesus was born, died in 3 or 4 BC.

One theory for this discrepancy is that Dionysius Exiguus–the sixth century monk who created the A.D. dating system (short for Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi or “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ”)–forgot to calculate the four-year reign of Emperor Octavian when adding up the years since the birth of Christ. Thus, the year he deduced to be 525 AD should have been 529.

Another theory states that Jesus was born even earlier, since the census that Luke mentions as the time of Jesus’s birth [This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria – Luke 2:2] occurred every fourteen years. Working backward, historians figured the first census would have been conducted in 8 BC.

So you see, we’re already in the future: 2019 AD.

But whether we’re wishing Jesus a happy 2011th, 2015th or 2019th birthday, we’re almost certainly celebrating the wrong day.

There’s no hint in the Gospels as to the day or even the season of Christ’s birth. A fact which has led some Christian denominations to exclaim that, had God wanted us to celebrate the birthday of the Lord, He would have given us some indication of the date.

In 4000 Years of Christmas, Episcopalian minister and scholar Earl Count recounts that the Romans celebrated December 25 as the birthday of the Sun God Mithra, a tradition inherited from Persian Mithraism. Similarly, the Annunciation of Christ, observed 9 months earlier on March 25, coincided with the Spring Equinox, which was celebrated as the New Year in the Near East.

In fact, Dionysius himself never considered the first day of the Christian era to be Christ’s birth—theoretically December 25, 1 AD—but Christ’s conception—aka, the Annunciation—on March 25.

That led to some confusion. As late as 18th century the English still marked March 25 as the start of the calendar year. (i.e., March 24, 1699 was followed by March 25, 1700. Yes, these are the people that cursed us with the Imperial measurement system of feet and pounds.)

In the United States, Christmas–a holiday once banned by the Puritans–has far outstripped the popularity of the Annunciation, or any holiday for that matter, partially due to its potential for consumerism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Which has led the folks at The Good News to ask, not how can we put the Christ back into Christmas, but “How can we put Jesus back into the season when He was never part of it to begin with?

Well, regardless of how Christmas was created, it has become the de facto time to observe the principles taught by Jesus nearly 2000 years ago in a troublesome Roman backwater. Christmastime is the season of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

Some Christians say they wish Christmas could last all year. Others say that Christmas’s pagan roots mean we shouldn’t celebrate it at all. I’m inclined to agree with the former. If we don’t know which day of the 365 is the real Christmas, best to hedge our bets, and make every day a holy day.


Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe

December 12

“…one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

— Carlos Fuentes

It’s been said that Mexico came into being not in 1821–the year Spain recognized its independence–but nearly 300 years earlier, in 1531, when a recently widowed peasant-farmer named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, beheld the most spectacular vision in Mexican history.


On December 9, he was out walking near the ruins of Tepeyac Hill, where Aztecs once worshipped the mother goddess Tonatzin, when a young incarnation of the Virgin Mary appeared before him encompassed in a halo of light. She spoke to Juan Diego in his native tongue of Nahuatl, and asked him to deliver a message to the Mexican bishop: to build a church on the ground where she stood.

Upon hearing Juan Diego’s story, the bishop had his doubts. So the next time Juan Diego saw the Virgin, he confessed to her his failure to convince the bishop. She told him to pick some flowers at the top of the hill–even though it was December and no flowers should have been blooming. There he found Castilian roses, native to the bishop’s hometown in Spain. The Virgin arranged them in his tilma (apron), but when Juan Diego opened his tilma to the bishop, it held not flowers but the lifelike image of the Virgin of Guadalupe upon it.

Word spread of the miraculous vision and the image on the cloth. What the event suggested to the descendants of the Aztecs, many of whom had been made to feel unworthy by the strange pushers of this new faith due to the color of their skin, was that the Virgin revealed herself not to a Spanish bishop, but to a common, dark-skinned peasant. And Guadalupe herself was not the pale icon that had been forced upon the people by Europeans, but a mestizo, a mixture of races that would come to represent Mexico.

Old Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico City

During the Mexican War of Independence in the 1810’s, the Lady of Guadalupe became the symbol of the new-born nation and the country’s patron saint.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego as well. His feast day is December 9, the anniversary of the day he first saw Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is December 12, the last day she appeared to him.

Today Mexico is still overwhelmingly Catholic, but as Gustavo Arellano points out:

You don’t have to be Mexican or even Catholic to celebrate Guadalupe. Heck, you don’t even have to believe in God. All you need is a belief in the equality of people that’s in the core of Guadalupe’s message and you will surely feel her redeeming love.

On December 12, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans gather in churches and communities throughout North America and celebrate the symbol of the people of Mexico and patron saint of the Americas.

Immaculate Conception

December 8

Today, December 8, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

I know what you expectant mothers are thinking. The Immaculate Conception is December 8. Jesus was born on December 25. A 17-day pregnancy? How do I get in on that!?!

Well, you can’t. Contrary to popular belief, in the Roman Catholic Church the Immaculate Conception refers not to the conception of Jesus, but to that of Mother Mary.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception falls exactly nine months before the Nativity of the Virgin Mary on September 8th. The Annunciation meanwhile is observed on March 25, nine months before Christmas.

So immaculate or not, gestation takes 9 months.

The Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been celebrated at least since the seventh century. But it wasn’t until 1854 that Pope Pius IX officially defined Immaculate Conception:

“The Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the foreseen merits of Jesus Christ, the savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.”

This doesn’t mean that Mary’s was a virgin birth, like Jesus’. The word Immaculate comes from the Latin in (not) and maculatus (stained). Mary’s conception, according to Roman Catholic dogma, was a normal one, but she was blessed by God and sanctified from the very moment of her own conception.

Although it’s not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, the Roman Catholic Church cites Mary’s description—being “full of grace”—as evidence for her Immaculate Conception, a blessed state that shielded Jesus from exposure to Original Sin. Protestants disagree on this, and in fact, Mary’s conception has been a major point of contention between the two.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated throughout the Catholic world. In Spain, Portugal, and parts of Latin America December 8 is celebrated as Mother’s Day. In Panama today, Mother’s Day is one of the most important holidays of the year. Writes one mother:

“I just came back from mother’s day celebration in Bocatorito a little village close to us…For the first time in my life I felt the core essence of what this day is all about. A day when you feel loved and special, but not with expensive gifts and going for dinner in fancy restaurants. Here, surrounded by humble people I understood and felt the joy of being celebrated as a mother.”

Happy New Year! The Advent-ure Begins

St. Andrew

The fourth Sunday before Christmas marks the beginning of the liturgical calendar in much of the Western Church. Advent Sunday corresponds to the Sunday nearest Saint Andrew’s Day (November 30).

Advent comes from the Latin Adventus,meaning ‘arrival’. During Advent Christians prepare for both the anniversary the birth of Christ, as celebrated on December 25, and the anticipation of the Second Coming.

The first records of what we now call Advent date from 5th and 6th century France.

Advent originally lasted six weeks (43 days), from St. Martin’s Day (November 11) to Christmas, during which adherents would fast three times a week. For many Germans and Austrians, St. Martin’s Day still kicks off the Christmas season.

Beginning in the 9th century the length of Advent was reduced to four weeks instead of six. Over the centuries the fasting element of this “second Lent” was replaced by abstinence, which was then replaced by little calendars with chocolates in them.

Some of the most visible symbols of the holiday are the Advent wreaths and the royal purple and royal blue banners and vestments in Catholic and Protestant churches.

Advent Wreath

The circular wreath was an ancient Germanic and Celtic symbol, representing the ever-turning “wheel of the year”. Today the wreath–with no beginning and no end–symbolizes the eternity of God and the immortality of the soul, as do the evergreens from which the wreath is made. Laurel leaves represent Christ’s persecution; cedar represents the healing power of Christ; and pine and holly represent immortality. Pine cones are sometimes used to signify new life and resurrection.

During each Sunday of Advent families and churches light one of the four wreath candles. In that respect the wreath is the original Advent Calendar.

In the Catholic tradition three candles are purple. The fourth, a rose candle, is lit on Gaudete Sunday.

The History of Advent

The History of the Advent Wreath

All Souls Day

November 2

…For it’s the turn of the year and All Souls’ night,
When the dead can hear and the dead have sight…

Edith Wharton, All Souls

All Souls Day - Aladar Korosfoi-Kriesch

Whereas All Saints Day recognizes the departed whose souls have found refuge in Heaven, All Souls Day remembers those restless spirits still lingering in Purgatory.

All Souls Day originated not in Rome but France.

Around 820 Amalarius of Metz (northwest of Strasbourg) wrote “After the offices of the saints, I have inserted an office for the dead. For many pass over from this present age who are not immediately united with the saints.” (ie. “don’t go directly to heaven.”)

In the early 11th century, St. Odilo, fifth abbot of the Cluny monastery, officiated the feast of All Souls on November 2. Over the century, the tradition was adopted by dioceses across Western Europe.

On All Souls Day, families visit the graves of their loved ones and light candles in their memory.

Fear not the shudder that seems to pass:
It is only the tread of the their feet on the grass…
…For the year’s on the turn and it’s All Souls’ night,
When the dead can yearn and the dead can smite…

…Let them see us and hear us, and say: “Ah, thus
In the prime of the year it went with us!”

All Souls Day is celebrated on November 2, unless the 2nd falls on a Sunday, in which case it’s observed on Monday, November 3 as was the case in 2008.

All Saints Day

November 1

Every day of the Catholic calendar honors at least one Saint.

But for all those Saints who just weren’t saintly enough to get their own day, there’s All Saints Day.

Okay, not exactly.

Medieval liturgists traced All Saints Day in the Catholic Church to the consecration of the Pantheon, originally a pagan temple built by Emperor Hadrian around 125 AD. The Pantheon honored the Roman, well, Pantheon (literally, “All Gods”.)

On May 13, 609 or 610, the Pantheon was consecrated by Pope Boniface IV in the name of the Virgin Mary and All Martyrs. The date, May 13, may harken back to the old festival Lemuralia, during which Romans remembered the dead and cast out restless spirits.

In the 730s Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel at St. Peters Basilica on November 1 and declared it an annual holy day. The chapel housed the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world.

St. Peters Basilica is believed to be the burial place of Saint Peter himself. This, the most famous place of worship in Christendom was built beside the “Circus” of Caligula, where the Emperor Nero organized mass executions of Christians beginning in 65 AD.

St. Peter was crucified there (upside-down) at the site in 67 AD. Today the Vatican City’s Colonnade surrounds what was once the notorious Circus, its center marked by an enormous Obelisk brought to Rome after the conquest of Egypt.

Some historians attribute the November 1 date to the church’s desire to supplant regional harvest festival holidays devoted to the dead, such as the Celtic Samhain.

Today All Saints Day glorifies the memory of those souls, known and unknown, who have found a place in heaven.

For all those stuck in Purgatory, there’s All Souls Day

Mother Teresa Day – Albania

October 19

“If in coming face to face with God we accept Him in our lives, then we are converting. We become a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Catholic, a better whatever we are…

“What approach would I use? For me, naturally, it would be a Catholic one…What God is in your mind you must accept. But I cannot prevent myself from trying to give you what I have…”

Mother Teresa

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Albania (now Macedonia) between the Ilinden anti-Ottoman Uprising and the outbreak of the First World War.

At age 8, her father died. At 18, she moved to Ireland to join the Sisters of Loreto, with whom she began her monastic training in India the following year. Agnes chose the name Teresa, after Teresa of France, the patron saint of missionaries who died in 1897 at age 24.

Sister Teresa taught students at the Loreto convent school in Calcutta for several years. On September 10, 1946, on her annual retreat to Darjeeling, she felt the call of God, telling her to work not within the confines of the school, but among the sick and poor of the streets.

She exchanged her convent habit for a simple cotton chira, became an Indian citizen, and continued to help the poorest of the poor for nearly 50 years. She established the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 to help “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society…”

The Missionaries currently operate over 600 missions in 123 countries.

I don’t think there is anyone else who needs God’s help and grace more than I do…I need His help twenty-four hours a day. And if days were longer, I would need even more of it.

Mother Teresa

Today, Mother Teresa’s homeland of Albania honors her with a national holiday. October 19 is the anniversary of the day in 2003 that she was beatified by the Vatican.

“Christ will not ask how much we did but how much love we put into what we did.”

Mother Teresa

“Do not imagine that love to be true must be extraordinary. No, what we need in our love is the continuity to love the One we love.”

Feasts of the Cross

September 14

September 14 is the Triumph of the Cross, in the Roman Catholic Church, or the Exaltation of the Cross in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

It commemorates the rediscovery of the cross on which Christ was executed. The True Cross was discovered by Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, during her pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326 AD.

Constantine later ordered a church to be built at the spot where the True Cross was found. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated on September 13, 335. The following day, September 14, a portion of the Cross was placed outside the church for followers to worship.

The Cross was taken by the Persians in 614 AD. Fourteen years later it was reclaimed by Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. Today’s feast day also celebrates that recapture of the Cross in 628.

Other names for the Feast:

  • Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Creating Cross (Eastern Orthodox)
  • Raising Aloft of the Precious Cross (Greek)
  • Holy Cross Day (Anglican)
Proving of the True Cross, Jean de Colombe, 1410
Proving of the True Cross, Jean de Colombe, 1410

“Hail, O Cross! Brighter than all the stars! To the eyes of men thou art exceedingly lovely!” (Magnificat Antiphon I)

“The pieces of this true cross, which are worshipped in different parts of Catholic countries, would, (says a competent judge,) if collected in one place, amount to more splinters than might be taken from the mainmast of a man-of-war.” (Ingram Cobbin, 1842)