It was about 2,044 years ago, in 30 B.C., that there was a great celebration throughout all of the Roman Empire, especially among Roman leaders. The Roman army became the supreme ruler of the land, and the ships of the Roman people became the rulers of the sea. There was no question that Rome was the ruler of the world as it was known at that time.
There appeared to be much glory and splendor throughout all of Rome, but much of it was like surface skin that covers deep and fatal sores not visible on the surface -- in this case, the hidden resentment of the common people. They were poor. And more than being poor, the common people were terribly mistreated. Cruelty seemed to be the policy of the government toward them. As far as the common people were concerned, there was no hope for the future, and they had become depressed, despondent, easy to mistreat and subjected to becoming slaves.
But one night all of this changed when, in Bethlehem, a young girl, unknown to the world, gave birth to a baby boy. This event was to change all history. For this baby boy grew to be a great man -- a man called by the name of Jesus. His birthday marks more than the date of his birth, it marks the birth of a new era -- the inauguration of a new culture -- the beginning of a new creed -- the fountainhead of man's hope.
Although the birth took place in what was then a relatively unimportant walled town (about 1,000 people) built on a limestone ridge of the Judaean highland that overlooks the Dead Sea, such a significant event could not go unnoticed. The world noticed it then, and for the majority of time since then the world has noticed it. And certainly we notice it now. In fact, the celebration of the birthday of Jesus is the most widely celebrated holiday throughout the world today. But it hasn't always been that way.
In the early days of the Christian Church it was illegal to be a Christian. Many early Christians did not celebrate Christmas for fear of being severely persecuted, and those who did celebrate Christmas did so secretly so as not to call attention to themselves. There are nativity scenes carved in rocks of the ancient catacombs of Rome where the Christians frequently hid during the days of persecution.
After Constantine became the undisputed emperor of the Roman Empire, sometime between A.D. 320 and 325 he declared that Christians would no longer be persecuted. In fact, instead of it being illegal to be a Christian, he declared that all people should be Christians. So Christians began celebrating Christmas once again. It had been almost 300 years since they celebrated the birth of Christ. They reverted to their Hebrew heritage and centered the Christmas celebration on a feast, a typical way for Hebrew people to celebrate great occasions.
This is not to suggest that such feasts were times when people gathered around large tables to eat festive foods. Feasts, or more correctly festivals, were times of dancing, singing, eating, and entertainment, sometimes lasting several days. The early Christians named the Christmas celebration "The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ."
It was sometime around A.D. 1038 that the word "Christmas" began to evolve. The established church at that time realized that the most significant aspect of the celebration of the birth of Jesus was the "Mass"--the celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist in conjunction with a worship service focused on the birth of the Savior. So the church changed the name of the celebration of the birth of Jesus from "The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ" to "Christ Mass," more popularly called "Christ's Mass" or the "Mass of Christ." It is understandable how Christ Mass evolved into "Christmas." Since about A.D. 1050, "Christmas" has been the word used throughout the world to refer to the time Jesus was born.
The Bible does not tell us the exact birth date of Jesus. We only know that it was during "the first enrollment when Quirinius was governor of Syria." (Luke 2:3, RSV) There has been much scholarly research as to exactly when this would have been. The general consensus is that Jesus was born sometime between 7 and 4 B.C., probably closer to 4 B.C. But there is no indication of what days or month such a census would have conducted.
The probable day and month of the birth of Jesus finally narrowed down to January 6 or December 25. The problem primarily was that there were several very popular pagan feasts celebrated about those same times of year. Some Christian leaders wanted to have the celebration of Christ's birthday on the same day as one of the popular pagan feasts in order to keep Christians from joining the pagan festivities, while others wanted to make sure that there was no connection between the pagan feasts and the celebration of Christmas.
Finally, about 350 years after the birth of Jesus, Bishop Liberius of Rome declared the date of Christmas as December 25, and since then that is the date that has been accepted by nearly all the peoples of the world.
Actually, we will never know the exact birth date of Jesus. But that really doesn't make any difference, for we know that Jesus was a real person who is still alive and is a very real presence in our lives today. Let us focus on that as we prepare for a blessed Christmas celebration.
Next week we will take a look at Mary and Joseph.