Was Jesus Born on December 25?


Three days till Christmas. Now, was Jesus actually born on December 25? Is Christmas His real birthday? [Spanish]

The Israelites did not use the Roman calendar that we use. And the gospels don’t give a birth date anyway, using either the Roman or the Jewish calendar—or the Chinese calendar, for that matter.

But the Scriptures do, in fact, offer us a great deal of pertinent information. We read at Sunday Mass: Mary set out in haste for the hill country of Judah. Right before that—right before Mary set out in haste–an angel had visited her. Which angel? Archangel…  Gabriel! What did the angel say to Mary? You will have a son.

In other words, Lord Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary right before she went to visit her cousin. Mary set out in haste. Why?  Because the angel also told her something else. Gabriel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant. In fact, he was more precise. He said, ‘Your cousin Elizabeth is 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 Elizabeth and…  Zechariah.

st-john-baptist-grecoSo far, it’s all here in black and white. Baby Jesus was conceived when Elizabeth was six months pregnant with St. John the Baptist. Question is: Was that approximately March 25? Did the Annunciation–when Mary became pregnant with Jesus–occur on March 25? That’s the day when The Incarnation—God becoming man–occurred, in Mary’s womb. Was it March 25?

Here’s where ancient traditions start to corroborate the idea that we have the correct date for Christmas. 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). By the way: Who said that Mass?  That is correct: Fr. White. (Fr. Andrew White.)

Anyway, 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.

Be all that as it may, though, it doesn’t prove anything. We need to try and figure out, if we can, when Elizabeth became pregnant.

Anyone remember what 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 Zechariah was performing his duty as a member of one of the priestly clans.

Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist right after Zechariah saw the angel in the Temple. Therefore, 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. Then we add nine months, and we know the real date of or the original Christmas.

Do the Scriptures provide an answer? Yes. In the Old Covenant, the priests ministered in the Temple in Jerusalem according to a yearly cycle, depending on your priestly division. They didn’t use sign-up sheets for Eucharistic Ministers, like we do now. They followed a cycle established by King David, as we read in I Chronicles.

king davidZechariah belonged to the priestly division of…  Anyone? Abijah. The clan of Abijah came eighth in the annual cycle.

Now, yes: By Zechariah’s time, a thousand years had passed since King David established the cycle.  The Temple had been destroyed twice.  So the routine certainly had broken down, somewhere along the line.  But a Jewish writer from the time of Christ documented some facts about the cycle of priestly service, and it turns out: King David’s routine still operated, as he had instituted it a thousand years before. When they rebuilt the Temple, they restored the original yearly cycle of priestly service.

So, the next question: 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. So: 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 two weeks later.

We could do all the math. 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 conceived in late March or early April of the following year, and born in late December, or early January. And, as we note this, let’s not forget: in Church, the feast of Christmas extends twelve nights, until January 6.

All 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 just from deductions and inductions from the Scriptures.

But the same honest historian would acknowledge: We have an ancient tradition identifying a particular date. Christians have been celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 since long before the Romans established a winter holiday around the same time of year. And the information we have in the Scriptures not only does not contradict that traditional date, it confirms it.

December 25. Jesus’ birthday. The date is solid. Merry Christmas.

The Drama of Our Lady’s Yes


Archangel Gabriel came from heaven to greet our Lady and to make a declaration. ‘You will give birth to the divine king. Name Him Jesus.’ [SPANISH.]

Then Mary asked a reasonable question, touching on the birds and the bees. The archangel gave her an answer, mentioning the Holy Spirit.

There was a brief silence. Let the sexual harassers of the world take note: nothing would happen without Mary’s consent. The Archangel Gabriel waited for an answer. Our Lady had the power to decide whether or not she would become the Mother of God.

Let’s listen to St. Bernard, as he narrated the drama of that moment in one of his sermons:

You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him.

St. Bernard goes on. He speaks to our Lady on behalf of the human race:

We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.

We all find ourselves involved in that moment, the moment of the Annunciation, as the archangel awaited our Lady’s consent. In a sense, we were all there, waiting. Yes, each of us has our own unique course of life to run. But none of us escapes the common fate of all the children of Adam. We need a Savior. We need the Messiah Who can liberate us from our own weaknesses, Who can atone for all our mistakes, and Who can give us a life that death cannot destroy.

St. Bernard continues, describing how everything will unfold if the Virgin says Yes:

Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.

…”O blessed Virgin, open your heart to faith.” St. Bernard has profound insight into Our Lady’s soul. Her consent to the Archangel required a great act of Christian faith. She had  to believe–to believe that God loved the world so much that He would give His only-begotten Son. She had to believe that the Holy Spirit could make her the Virgin Mother of the eternal Word. And she had to trust that God in His providence would see her through all the excruciating difficulties that she knew she would face.

In other words, Mary conceived a son in her womb by believing precisely what we believe. That God is one God in three divine Persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that the Son willed to unite Himself to our race, so as to become our Savior. In one all-important moment, Christ’s human life began, and Christianity began, with a young girl believing in the magnificent providence of God.

As we just heard, St. Bernard concludes his narration with dramatic fervor, coaching the Virgin, exhorting her, fathering her. ‘Believe, young lady! God is that good.”

Did Mary believe? She did. How do we know? She said:“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Magnificat on Visitation Day

Our Lady visited her cousin. Upon arrival, the Blessed Virgin sang a canticle and proclaimed the great truth of religion. Our souls were made to proclaim the greatness of the Lord and to rejoice in Him, our Creator and Savior.

VisitationAlmighty God looked with favor on us–when He made us out of nothing, and when He redeemed us from sin. We can aspire to no nobler place than to serve Him, because He is the great God of all.

Of course we qualify as “lowly”—compared to Him. But to serve Him means blessedness and honor, compared to serving anyone or anything else. By claiming us as His servants, God has taught us to think more of ourselves, to esteem ourselves more highly, than we ever could have, if He had left us to our own little devices.

Has He not shown the strength of His arm? Not only did He array the stars in their constellations, and make all the trees, and blue whales, and chipmunks, and vast fields and flowers, and everything else—not only did He do all these grand things, He also came to help of His servant Israel.

He formed our holy people, the nation marching to heaven—He formed us by promising a good future to Abraham. And then He backed-up all His promises, sending prophets and then His Christ, who dwelt in Mary’s womb when she visited her cousin Elizabeth.

The mercy of God resounds like an organ chord that extends to infinity, filling all time and space. Our souls were made not to test Him, or to rebel, or quibble—but simply to rejoice that He, Who is good and kind and loving, is our Lord.

Henry Tanner Annunciation, A Couple Books, y Homilia en Español


A kind parishioner gave me a large print to hang in my office, as a Christmas present. A Realist rendition of the Archangel Gabriel’s visit, with our Lady looking appropriately Semitic. Years ago I laid eyes on the original, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Quite a coincidence to receive this gift today, since I was just reading Bill Bryson about his visit to the museum, which he recounts in The Lost Continent:

My friend Hal pointed out to me, in the middle of Fairmount Park, the palatial Philadelphia Museum of Art, which had become the city’s top tourist attraction, not because of its collection of 500,000 paintings, but because its front steps were the ones Sylvester Stallone sprinted up in Rocky. People were actually coming to the museum in buses, looking at the steps and leaving without ever going inside to see the pictures.

…Ever read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton? Talk about a magnificent Realist-school work of art. As exquisitely precise as Jane Austen’s finest, with the polar-opposite emotional effect.

…Between December 21 and 24, we read at Holy Mass from the near-beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the accounts of the Visitation and the birth of St. John the Baptist. These Mass readings include the great Gospel canticles, which the Church sings daily in the Divine Offices for morning and evening, the Magnificat and the Benedictus. Tomorrow morning, the Advent Mass readings conclude with Zechariah’s song. Here’s a homily on it, in Spanish. (You can read the English by clicking here.)

…Cada mañana, la Iglesia saluda a la madrugada con la oración. Una de las oraciones diarias de la mañana de la Iglesia es el cántico que Zacarías cantó cuando se enteró de que el Cristo había venido.   Los monjes, monjas, sacerdotes y muchos laicos, también: todos cantan o recitan esta misma canción como parte de nuestras oraciones cada mañana.

“Bendito sea el Señor, que ha llegado a su pueblo y levantó un Salvador poderoso, cumpliendo sus promesas a los profetas.”

La canción de Zacarías expresa el contenido de la promesa de Dios con una manera particularmente elocuente.  El Señor prometió que Su pueblo serían liberados de las manos de los enemigos, de modo que sea capaz de “culto sin temor, santo y justo a los ojos de Dios.”   El Salvador recién-nacido hace que esto sea posible para nosotros:  Adorar a Dios sin miedo, de pie delante de Él en la santidad.

philadelphia-museum-of-artEsta es la paz de la humanidad, este culto sin cargas.  Los ángeles cantaron, y nosotros tambien cantamos : “Gloria a Dios y paz a los hombres de buena voluntad.”  Esta es la salvación: adorar a nuestro Creador con un corazón en reposo, con la conciencia tranquila.

El antiguo Israel tenía muchos enemigos, pero el enemigo verdadero es el pecado, la falsedad –vacío interior que sólo conduce a la muerte.  El pecado hace que sea imposible adorar a nuestro Creador y Señor sin temor. Porque la verdad es la verdad, y los ojos de Dios ven todo. Si no estamos en un estado de verdadera honestidad con nosotros mismos, nunca vamos a estar en un estado de paz real.

Cristo ha venido precisamente para liberarnos de las garras de este, nuestro mayor enemigo: nuestra falta de honradez con nosotros mismos.  Nuestro orgullo grandioso tonto.  Los sabios de entre nosotros siempre han declarado: “Tu primer deber es conocerte a ti mismo!”  Y no hay objetivo que ha sido más imposible que logremos.

Cristo no vino a la tierra para decirnos que somos maravillosos, que somos hot-shots, que tenemos todo junto.  Porque no somos, y no lo tenemos. Lo que vino Él a hacer es morir por nosotros, por amor a todos nosotros los pecadores incorregibles.

Así que podemos estar sin temor ante Dios Todopoderoso y admitir la verdad: que no somos perfectos. No somos divines.  Somos Don Nadie.  Estamos indefensos y perdidos sin la ayuda de Dios.  Cristo nos ha liberado de nuestros pretextos ridículos por su hermosa demostración del hecho de que Él ama a todos los Don Nadies.  Él ama a perdedores desventurados.

Es realmente sólo interesado en perdedores. Las personas hermosas, perfectas Él deja a su libre albedrío, para disfrutar de su supuesta genialidad en su propio ámbito de autonomía–que en realidad es un reino de espejos rotos y la decepción que nunca termina.

Pero, para nosotros los ineptos irresponsables, el amor de Jesús puede darnos la fuerza para conocernos a nosotros mismos en la verdad.  Él derramó su sangre por nuestros pecados, para que todo lo que tenemos que hacer para ser libre de ellos es confesar– en el gran acto de honestidad cristiana que cumple con todas las antiguas profecías.   ‘Señor, ten piedad de mí, pecador.’  ‘Hijo, tu fe te ha salvado! Tus pecados son perdonados. Sigue tu camino.’

Entonces podemos adorar a Dios sin miedo!  Podemos conocer la paz emocionante de un día vivido completamente en la verdad. Y podemos ver con alegría como la aurora de lo alto amanece sobre nosotros en toda su gloria.

Bendito y alabado sea el Señor Jesucristo, ahora y siempre y siempre y siempre.

Zechariah and Eddie Vedder in the Desert

So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. (Luke 1:62-64)

Zechariah probably qualifies as the most famous priest in the Bible. Perhaps all we priests should take note how Zechariah spent so much time completely mute.

And all husbands maybe should note this: The boy’s name? It’s what she said.

The coming of Christ, however, loosens tongues. Faith bears witness. As we pray at every Mass during this final week of Advent: St. John the Baptist was born “to sing of Christ’s coming.”

We can only imagine the quality of the holy prophet’s singing voice. Any ideas what modern singer might have a voice like St. John the Baptist had?

Johnny Cash? Ray Charles? Roy Orbison? Placido Domingo? Springsteen?

I say Eddie Vedder.

Blessed Mother’s “Rights”

If you heard the gospel reading at Mass yesterday, it sounded an awful lot like Sunday. So we have waited two days to hear what happened next. What happened after St. Elizabeth praised our Lady’s humble faith, after Elizabeth invented the Hail Mary, after St. John the fetus leapt in the womb when Christ the embryo entered the house.

MagnificatWell, Blessed Mother finally had an opportunity to speak. So she sang of the Lord’s promises to Abraham, who had been willing to sacrifice his son. She sang of justice, arriving as mercy.

First Christmas after ordination, I gave a pro-life homily on Christmas Eve, in upper-middle-class suburban Washington. Not everyone liked it. But I still think: We face a decisive either/or here, precisely at Christmas.

Our contemporary standards would lead us to ask: What about our Lady’s autonomy? Did she get a fair deal? She woke up one day, basically minding her own business. Next thing you know, she’s eating for two. But her Magnificat reveals that the idea of “autonomy” never so much as entered her beautiful mind.

Christmas teaches us that there actually is no such thing as autonomy–not really; not in the final analysis. No one ever came into this world on his or her own steam. So, to unite Himself with us, God Himself made Himself as vulnerable as you or me or Barack Obama or Alexander the Great were during our sojourns in the womb. That is: utterly dependent. And very demanding: Doesn’t seem like our Lady had to spend the first trimester vomiting. But plenty of expectant mothers do. And why? Because babies in the womb unwittingly make unreasonable and excessive demands.

But the Divine Mercy, originally revealed in a pregnancy, transcends any and all “rights” to self-determination that any of us could claim. Did Mary have a right to the carefree existence she had before the angel came? Her Magnificat bulldozes over such a question. Bulldozes over it with a song about God.

God is in charge, and He has made us dependent on each other, and on Him. Our Lady sings: God has mercy on those who fear Him, on the lowly and the hungry, on the people who wouldn’t know what to do with a team of lawyers, even if they could afford one.

The Christmas the Lord has Planned

Every year, at Holy Mass on December 19th, we read from Luke 1. And we confront the question: Why did Zechariah get punished for asking the Archangel Gabriel a question about John the Baptist’s birth, but Mary did not get punished for asking about how Jesus could be born?

And the answer is?…

–Zechariah—a wise, old priest—should have known better than to doubt.

–St. John the Baptist got conceived according to the traditional, birds-and-the-bees method, so Zechariah’s question was petulant. Whereas Mary asked a perfectly honest question.

–Zechariah was a chatterbox who talked too much anyway.

Remember how, two years ago, a lot of people worried about the Mayan apocalypse? And fifteen years ago, a lot of people worried that Y2K would crash everyone’s computer? 1,015 years ago, most of Western civilization sat waiting for the world to end at the turn of the first millennium.

New Agers Mayan templeI don’t mean to make fun of any of these people. In a way, they had the right idea. Zechariah failed to give God credit for being able to do something totally unexpected.

Do I know what Christmas is supposed to be like for me spiritually? Aren’t I supposed to have such-and-such feelings, such-and-such ‘faith experiences’ at Christmas? That’s the way it always is. It’s traditional. Christmas is a time for my traditional emotions.

For me personally, Christmas is traditionally a time to be tired and out-of-sorts. Because I have a cold. Because Our Lady decided to appear to St. Juan Diego in December instead of July. Thereby turning Advent from difficult to practically impossible for the Martinsville/Rocky Mount/Roanoke-Catholic priest to manage.

Traditional spiritual experiences.

But what if these are not what the Lord has planned for us for Christmas AD 2014? What if this Christmas will involve spiritual graces for me unlike any I have ever received before?

Lord, help us open ourselves up to the future that You have planned for us! Open us up to the Christmas that You have planned for us! We don’t know how to plan like You do. What You have in mind is much better, much more interesting, and much more wonderful than anything we have ever thought of.

Conditions for Belief

The gospel tells us that Zechariah lived a holy, upright life. The angel came to visit him while he faithfully fulfilled his priestly duties. Gabriel found Elizabeth’s husband in the Temple, the most splendidly divine place imaginable. The humble priest busied himself burning incense, praying, surrounded by crowds of pious people praying in the Temple court outside.

In other words, the archangel came to the place most frequented by the holy heroes of Advent, the place where they came to await the fulfillment of the Lord’s ancient promises. Where Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, everyone knew Elijah was to come again, to direct the hearts of children to their fathers and to prepare a people fit for the Lord.

jerusalem_solomon_templeThe angel came to this most believable of settings, and proceeded to tell Zechariah something which hardly even defied the laws of nature. You and your wife will have a son!

Wonderful news, yes. Another instance of God’s fruitfulness, to which the Old Testament had borne so much witness through the centuries. But the rules of the birds and the bees would remain intact. Zechariah was not asked to believe anything too outlandish. Just that he and his wife would have an unexpected son.

Meanwhile, the archangel visited the Blessed Virgin in a much less holy city, in a part of the country as pagan as it was Jewish. Nazareth has a great name now. But at the time, as we know from reading the gospels, the Jews thought of the town as an unmentionable backwater, in a region over-run by distasteful foreigners who cared only about commerce.

And what Gabriel proposed to Mary demanded a much greater leap of faith. He told her that something would happen which had never happened before. She asked the angel an honest question, got an enormously mysterious answer, and humbly submitted.

Continue reading “Conditions for Belief”

St. Luke Day Homily

The four gospels provide us with our clear picture of the living Son of God. Four men composed these books, with the Holy Spirit guiding them, and using all their skill as writers, too.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have achieved a great literary feat. The subject of their writing emerges in vivid color, and they themselves disappear.

St. Luke did not write about himself; he wrote about the Son of God. Ditto for the three other invisible word-portrait painters. When they wrote, they forgot about themselves and gave us Christ.

Luke and John, though, do each provide one sentence to explain their goal in writing, namely to give true testimony. St. Luke spells it out most clearly. He addresses us directly:

Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses have handed them down. I decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent lover of God. (Luke 1)

We have two extremely solid reasons, then, for trusting the four gospels of the New Testament as the definitive standard when it comes to information about Jesus of Nazareth.

1. If we hold the Christian faith, then it is because the Church has taught it to us. We believe that the Sacred Scriptures provide us with infallibly true teaching because the Church says that they do.

2. If we read documents with an historian’s critical eye, we recognize that the four gospels of the New Testament have a much higher level of credibility than any other source of information about Jesus of Nazareth. All the other sources—the “apocryphal gospels” and other fragments here and there—were all written generations later than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And many of the other supposed sources of information have obvious axes to grind, whereas the canonical gospels have, as we mentioned earlier, an evident purity of intention in their presentation.

So: Talk-show hosts and other sensationalists might jump all over so-called “discoveries” that Jesus was married, or had a girlfriend, or lived to be seventy, or wore a bandana and combat boots, or was a Hindu, or preferred horseback riding to religion. But anyone who actually knows something about this just laughs. We appreciate what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did to give us information about the Son of God upon which we can absolutely rely.

Quinceañera Visitation

Today I celebrate Mass for the fourth time this month with the Visitation gospel reading from St. Luke.

This is the gospel reading assigned for a Quinceañera Mass, when a young Mexican woman renews her baptismal promises and consecrates herself anew to the service of God.

Recalling the Visitation suits the occasion of a Quinceañera Mass perfectly.

The Blessed Mother showed the kind spirit of a Christian woman in thinking of her cousin and going to help her. The moment when Mary and Elizabeth met gave the world a beautiful, quiet sign of the coming of the Messiah, when St. John recognized Christ–womb-to-womb, so to speak. And the Blessed virgin expressed the heart of a prayerful quinceañera when she sang her Magnificat, glorifying God for His immeasurable goodness and generosity.

We give thanks that we have life. We give thanks that Christ has given us every reason to hope for eternal consolation. We give thanks that He chose us and made us His own. The Almighty has done great things for us. Holy is His name.