Father Abraham first heard God 21 centuries before a star rose above Bethlehem. We now live in the 21st Century after. At the center of all faith, Christ is born.
- “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed.” (Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15)
No one really knows when or why tradition first places the Birth of Christ on December 25th, but the custom is ancient. Some theorize that it was influenced by a Roman pagan feast called Saturnalia that stretched for twelve days from the winter solstice into January. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” are thus linked by some historians to pre-Christian Roman tradition. The Persian cult of Mithra, “Sol Invictus” (the “Unconquerable Sun”) practiced by many Roman legionnaires, was also marked on December 25th, and some propose a link between that and the date for Christmas.
However the observance of Christ’s birth on December 25th is far older than the time when Christianity became respectable in the Roman Empire. The first recorded mention of December 25 as the date of observance of the Feast of the Holy Birth was in a Roman document called the Philocalian Calendar dated as early as 336 A.D. Popular observance of the December 25 date of the Nativity, however, was at least a century older.
One obscure theory points to an early Roman Empire legend that great men are fated to die on the same date they were conceived. One tradition traced the date of Passover at or near March 25 in the year Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. If thus among some Romans it became popular belief that he was conceived on that date, then nine months to the day later would be December 25. In the Roman Calendar which preceded our Gregorian Calendar, March 25 was considered the first day of the new year, and to this day it remains observed as the Feast of the Annunciation.
The Roman Martyrology also includes a solemn and far more ancient reach into Judeo-Christian Tradition. The “Proclamation of the Birth of Christ” is sometimes read at the Midnight Mass at Christmas after a procession from the entrance of a church to the Nativity scene. That proclamation places us at a special point in Salvation history. In fact, from our perspective, it places Christ at the very center of that history.
The Proclamation declares that Christ was born in the 21st century after Abraham, our Father in faith, ventured out of Ur of the Chaldees and first encountered God. We now live in the 21st Century after. So we kneel before Him this Christmas season knowing that Christ is exactly equidistant between us and the very genesis of the human experience of God. It’s a realization that ought to shake us out of our political and theological divisions, out of our spiritual doldrums, out of any more mundane concerns.
Instead of quibbling over who among the alienated might be saved and how, this Christmas makes us fall on our knees, in sin and error pining, as He appears and our souls feel their worth. All divisions cease.
The Roman Martyrology Proclamation of the Birth of Christ:
- “The twenty-fifth day of December when ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created heaven and earth, and formed man in His own likeness; when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood, as a sign of covenant and peace — In the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith, came out of Ur of the Chaldees; in the thirteenth century since the people of Israel were led by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt; in the tenth century since David was anointed King; in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel; in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the founding of Rome; in the forty-second year in the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace — Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and when nine months had passed since His conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man. — The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.” — O Come! Let us adore Him!
LEAD, KINDLY LIGHT
Prisoners here have a catalog from a vendor called Union Supply that markets only inside prisons. From it, when funds permit, prisoners can purchase some of the necessities of like such as shoes, warmer clothing, hygiene items, electronics, etc. The catalog also contains cards, but no Christmas cards. I could purchase generic “Season’s Greeting,” a Hanukkah card, even a Kwanzaa card, but no Christmas cards. We live in complicated times.
So I have few cards to send. In spite of that, many of the beautiful Christmas cards you have sent to us now cover the walls of this prison cell. They all proclaim the same message, from every corner of the Earth, and every one of them is treasured. Your cards proclaim salvation, the signs of which are in short supply here.
I am forced by circumstance to live in a place with men who are banished, not just from home and family and freedom, but too often also from hope. Some with even the darkest pasts have come into the light to thrill us with their stories of grace and true repentance and conversion. You have read of several in these pages and there are other stories yet to come. For some of these wounded men become saints, I am not fit to fasten their sandals.
We live East of Eden, a place from which the Magi of the Gospel saw a star and heard good news, the very best of news: Freedom can be found in only one place, and the way there is to follow the Star they followed. If you follow These Stone Walls, never follow me. Follow only Christ.
My Christmas card to you is this message, a tradition of sorts behind These Stone Walls. My small, barred cell window faces due West so my gaze is always out of the East. On this cold and gray December day, the sun will soon be setting behind the high prison wall, glistening upon its razor wire like tinsel. I sit in this spot every Christmas eve to watch its final descent behind the wall that is my view of the world at Christmas for the 21st time.
I offer this moment for you, for TSW readers the world over, and I offer for you this prayer, “Lead, Kindly Light,” my favorite verse from the newly canonized Saint John Henry Newman:
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now, Lead Thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: Remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blessed me, sure it still will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone.
And with the morn those Angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.