You may have heard it said—even in a sermon, which should be free of such speculation—that Christians chose December 25 to celebrate Jesus’ birth because that was the day the Romans held a festival celebrating the sun god. The idea, oft proclaimed, is that Christianity sought to “baptize” or even “re-purpose” existing pagan dates of importance and thus “colonize” the lives of native peoples. My liturgics professor, the late Thomas Talley, was persuaded that this is a false account, and on many grounds (see his 1986, Origins of the Liturgical Year).
In the ancient world, birthdays were largely unknown. (This was the case even in the time of Columbus, who did not know exactly when he was born.) There arose a tradition of assuming that, for important people, the date of their death was also their birthday; thus, the date they left the world was reckoned to be the date on which they had entered it. Christians believed Jesus died at Passover, a fixed date on the lunar calendar of the Jews (i.e., 14/15 Nisan). So they tried to work back in the Roman calendar to find the date on which Passover would have fallen in the year of Jesus’ death. They came up with two: March 25 and April 6.
But Christians also had reason to date Jesus’ entry into the world not to his birth but to his conception (the account in the first chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel of the angel appearing to Mary). So, in part of the world of the early church March 25 was the date of Jesus’ crucifixion and of what we call the Annunciation. The same was true in the parts of the world where the early church took April 6 as the date of Jesus’ death.
From these dates, they moved forward nine months and got, respectively, December 25 and January 6 as the date for Jesus’ nativity. When these traditions were later harmonized, Talley surmised, the earlier date became associated with Jesus’ birth itself, the latter with the events we celebrate as the Epiphany (for instance, the visit of the wise men described in the second chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel). This view has carried the day in many circles; one finds it, for instance, in Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book (1980; pp. 56f.).
I have found people receptive to the mystery that the day Jesus expired on the cross was his birthday, the day he was conceived by the Holy Ghost. It is not asserted as an historical truth, but as an ancient way of understanding the deeper meaning of events.
And there, perhaps, we can just let it sit. On Good Friday, it is appropriate for us to remember the Annunciation; we may say that this day on which our Lord died has long been thought to be also the day, thirty-some years earlier, on which he entered the world. There is no question that Christians, because of the angel appearing to Mary, understand Jesus’ life to have begun with his conception in the womb. To connect this with Good Friday is to go a step further in shaping a Christian imagination in which each of our human lives begins not on the date we remember with presents and cake, but nine months before that.
The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.