12/15/2013 09:35 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2014

Getting Closer to Christmas

In order to understand fully the meaning Christmas, one must be acquainted with what happened several months earlier. It's the amazing story about a young woman by the name of Mary, estimated to have been only sixteen or seventeen years old, and her fiancé, Joseph, who was several years older. The story is found in The Gospel According to Matthew 1:26-35 and The Gospel According to Luke 1:26-35, 56.

An angel by the name of Gabriel appeared to Mary, and at first she was very frightened. But Gabriel told her not to be afraid, that he had a message for her from God. At first she hesitated, but then she listened, and Gabriel told her the most unusual thing. He said that she had found favor with God, that she was going to have a child, and that her child would be the Son of God's Holy Spirit. Can you imagine what she must have thought? "Is this for real, or am I just having some kind of a hallucination?"

To think about this, to wait and find out if she really was with child, and to figure out what she would tell Joseph, she went to stay with a relative, Elizabeth, for three months. That was long enough for her to realize that she was going to have a baby and that she must tell Joseph.

Mary went to Joseph and told him that she was with child, but not to worry because she had been faithful to him, that the baby she would give birth to would be the Son of God, and that he would be given the throne of David, and that of his kingdom there would be no end. Can you imagine what Joseph thought? We know he did not believe what Mary told him because we read that Joseph, being a kind man and not wanting to embarrass Mary, decided to break-off the engagement quietly. But after making that decision, an angel appeared to him in a dream, assuring Joseph that everything Mary had told him was true. When Joseph woke from his sleep, he decided to go ahead with the marriage.

Certainly what happened to Mary was a great miracle that plays the central role in understanding the true significance of Christmas. But it seems to me that Joseph's willingness to believe such an outlandish explanation for how his fiancée became pregnant was also quite miraculous and deserves not to be entirely forgotten.

But back to the virgin birth of Mary. We are dealing here with the fact that Jesus is the incarnation of God -- that Jesus is the union of divinity with humanity, that Jesus the Christ is fully God and fully human, and that Christmas is the celebration of God's becoming flesh and blood while also remaining God. [Origin of Incarnation traced to Latin: incarnari, "to be made flesh."]

While the exact date of the birth of Jesus is not known for certain, most historians today put his birth to be somewhere between 7 and 2 BC, and since the fourth century AD most Christians have celebrated Christmas on December 25. The Christian season of Advent ends on the evening of December 24, and Christmastide, another name for the Christmas season, is a twelve day festival that starts on the evening of Christmas Eve, at the same time that the Advent season ends.

People become confused about the twelve days of Christmas when they try to count the twelve days starting on Christmas day. The confusion comes from not realizing that the first day of Christmas starts on the evening of December 24 and not on Christmas day, and the twelfth day of Christmas starts on evening of January 4th and ends on the evening of January 5th. The observance of Epiphany, which marks the end of the Christmas season, is on the next day, January 6th. Some people think that Epiphany is the twelfth day of Christmas, but that is incorrect. The season of Christmas ended the night before. I mention this now because the many people who sing "The Twelve Day of Christmas" deserve to know when the twelve days actually are.

Epiphany is the official day the church designates for taking down all Christmas decorations. For the western Christian Churches, Epiphany commemorates the coming of the three Wise Men or Magi or Kings from the East to give gifts to Jesus -- the first outward or visible sign to the Gentiles of the divine nature of Jesus. But for the Eastern Christian Churches, Epiphany, also celebrated on January 6th, commemorates the baptism of Jesus. [Origin of Epiphany traced to Ancient Greek: epiphainesthai, "to appear."]

As I wrote last week, people coming from a liturgical background will probably use purple candles in their Advent wreathes for the first, second, and fourth Sunday of Advent, but will use a pink or rose-colored candle on the third Sunday -- and today is the third Sunday of advent. So why the different-colored candle for today?

Violet is the traditional color of penitential seasons in the Church, and Advent is thought of in the Christian Church as a time for soul searching and penitence, as well as for generosity, as one prepares for Christmas. On the third Sunday of Advent, liturgically known as "Gaudete Sunday" from the Latin word meaning "to rejoice," a brighter color signifies a pause to the penitential spirit of Advent and replacing it with a day of rejoicing and happiness in celebrating the midway point of Advent.

So today -- Sunday, January 15, 2013 -- should be spent in a spirit of rejoicing as we continue our preparation for the most important birthday celebration of the year -- celebrating the day when God became human, like one of us, but, at the same time, remained God. We'll talk more about that next week.