Mary set out in haste for the hill country of Judah. Right before that, an angel had visited her. Which angel? Archangel… Gabriel! The angel told her that she would have… a son.
Then Mary set out in haste. Because the angel also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was now in her… sixth month! Upon Mary’s arrival, the infant in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy. Which infant is that, that leaped for joy in the womb? Yes, St. John the Baptist, son of Mary’s kin, Zechariah and Elizabeth.
So let’s have some fun and do some simple calendar math. Lord Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary when Elizabeth was approximately sixth months pregnant with St. John. Right? It’s all in the Scriptures, in black and white.
Now, do we know when Elizabeth became pregnant? Anyone remember what had happened? The archangel Gabriel had visited someone else, besides Mary… Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband! The angel visited Zechariah at home, while he was sitting and watching t.v., correct? No, the angel came to Zechariah in the Temple, while he was performing his duty as a member of one of the priestly clans.
Now, people often wonder, Can we really know for sure that Jesus was born on December 25? After all, Holy Scripture does not explicitly name the date. And maybe it would have been too cold for shepherds to couch their flocks by night on December 25?
Let’s back up. We do know that Jesus Christ was, in fact, born. So, if we knew nothing else at all, and said: He was born on December 25! we would have a 1/365 chance of being right.
But, actually, we do know a little more about it. Generally speaking, mothers carry babies in their wombs for how long? Coupla weeks? No. Nine months. So we can say: The Lord Jesus was born approximately nine months after He was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Reasonable enough, right? When was He conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Right! When Mary said Yes to the Archangel Gabriel. The Annunciation, which occurred right around St. Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy. So, the $10,000 question is: was that March 25? Or at least March 25th-ish?
You know, for many centuries, people observed March 25th as New Year’s Day. The first Mass said by an English-speaking priest in what is now the United States: March 25, 1634. New Year’s Day. (January 1 did not become New Year’s Day in the English Colonies until 1751). Who said that Mass? That is correct: Fr. White. (Fr. Andrew White.)
In ancient times, people believed that the world was created on March 25, that the Israelites marched out of slavery on March 25, and that Jesus was crucified on March 25. But: please forgive me; I digress. None of that is really on-point. Can we find any historical evidence for the idea that Jesus Christ was conceived in the womb on or around March 25?
In a word, yes we can find some evidence. Elizabeth became pregnant right after Zechariah saw the angel in the Temple. So, if we could figure out when it was that Zechariah ministered in the temple in the preceding year, we could add six months, and we would know more or less when the Annunciation took place.
Zechariah belonged to the priestly clan of… Anyone? Abijah. King David had assigned the yearly routine of service for the priestly clans, as we read in I Chronicles. The clan of Abijah came eighth in the cycle.
Now, a thousand years had passed since King David’s time. The Temple had been destroyed twice. So the routine certainly had broken down, along the line there. But a Jewish writer from the time of Christ documented some facts about the cycle of priestly service. So we know that King David’s routine still operated, more or less as he had instituted it a thousand years before.
Was Jerusalem crowded when the angel visited Zechariah in the Temple? St. Luke reports that the “whole multitude” of Israel awaited him out in the Temple courtyard. When would the priestly clan of Abijah have served during a large festival? On the day of Atonement, in mid-September, or during the Feast of Tabernacles, which followed a fortnight later.
We could do all the math together. But we don’t have to. If St. John the Baptist was conceived near the end of September or the beginning of October, then Lord Jesus was born in late December of the following year, or early January. (Let’s not forget that the feast of Christmas extends twelve nights, until January 6.)
Now, all these calendar calculations are very exciting, but let’s pause. We really cannot say for sure when Zechariah served in the Temple during the year before St. John was born. An honest historian would say: We do not know Jesus’ exact date of birth from the historical documents that we possess.
But the same honest historian would acknowledge: we have an ancient tradition identifying a particular date. And the naysaying quibbles about December 25 don’t really hold water. Palestine can have mild Decembers, just like Virginia. The original Christmas Eve could have been a lovely night for shepherding flocks outside by night.
So let’s not let any unreasonably skeptical grinches try to steal our genuine Christmas joy. If anyone suggests that we are naïve to believe everything we hear in church on Christmas, we could reasonably respond by asking: What ill-founded nonsense did you naively believe that made you start to doubt any of it?