You Matter: Conference

The History of Christmas

  • Introduction
  • Winter Solstice… Transfigured
  • The Three Masses
  • The Meaning of the Three Christmas Masses
  • The Emergence of Advent
  • Living the Liturgy: Conclusion & Questionnaire



So far we have been meditating on the truths about
Christmas. Now we are going to shift gears and talk
about the origin of the liturgy, what we can learn from
it, and reflect a little bit on the history of the Church.
The conference is directed more towards the mind and
not so much towards the heart, but in the end it will
have repercussions on our hearts.
The conference covers three different topics.
Firstly, we will talk about where the date for
Christmas came from.
When we talk about the date for Christmas we have to
ask two questions.
Why did the date for Christmas get settled so late
in history?
Why was December 25th chosen?
Why did it take 300 years to settle the date?
In the 300s, the liturgy began to formalize: the details
of the liturgy became solid, became fixed, and became
universal throughout the Church.
For the first two-and-a-half to three centuries of
Christianity, the Church was persecuted; it wasn’t
permitted to worship in public. Bishops and
communities throughout the Roman Empire followed a
very basic liturgical schedule. The basic liturgical year
was built around Easter and Passion Week, but the rest
of the memorials of the saints, the rest of the feasts, and
the rest of the traditions developed in different ways
and in different parts of the Empire.
This resulted in different liturgical traditions developing,
all built around the same core. In the east, you had the
Syro-Antiochene tradition, and in Eygpt the Alexandrian
tradition which led to the Coptic Church and the
Ethiopian liturgy. Then up in Constantinople, presentday
Istanbul, you had the Byzantine liturgy develop.
In Italy you had the Roman liturgy. In northern Italy
you had the Ambrosian liturgy, you had the Gallican
liturgy in France, and the Mozarabic liturgy in Spain.
So, all throughout the Roman Empire you had different
liturgical traditions developing, changing and adapting to
local customs, but all with the same core of the Mass
and the core of the liturgical year — Easter and the
Once the period of persecution ended after A.D. 313, Christians were finally allowed to worship publicly, to worship freely, and no longer had to worry about a wave of new persecutions. Due to this time of peace, these liturgical traditions began to be formalized. The Church could start putting together liturgical books and liturgical vestments, as they didn’t have to worry about the Roman police coming to apprehend them at any moment. This enabled the liturgy to take on a formal appearance, and the traditions to begin to solidify.
Another factor in the formalization of the liturgy was heresies.
There were heresies regarding the nature of Christ: was he truly God and truly man, or just a demi-god? There were even heresies regarding the Trinity itself: was
the Holy Spirit fully divine? These types of questions started to be asked and dealt with by theologians in this period.
As a result of this, different groups of priests would adjust the prayers of the liturgy in order to support their particular viewpoint on a given doctrinal question.
This caused the Church to formalize the prayers of the liturgy so that they were universally orthodox.
Why did we get the dates only in the 300s? Because the liturgical year and the liturgical forms were being developed and solidified during that period.
Why December 25th?
Two different traditions emerged during the first few centuries of the Church about which day to celebrate the Birth of Our Lord. In the east, near the Eastern Churches, there was a strong pagan tradition of celebrating the winter solstice on January 6th. In the west, ever since the days of Emperor Aurelian, there was an emphasis on the worship of the sun and the
sun god throughout the whole empire, and as a result, they celebrated the winter solstice on December
25th. Their solstice celebration celebrated the rebirth of the invincible sun, the unconquerable sun — the
sun god itself. The commonality here between these two dates in east and west was the pagan recognition or celebration of the winter solstice. Later, more elaborate theological interpretations became associated with these dates.
The solstice is the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, after which the days begin to get longer. So the winter solstice is really a festival of light, a recognition of this natural rhythm of the light of the sun increasing again in the middle of the winter.
When the Church was spreading in these centuries,
it had to meet people where they were. The Church wanted to celebrate the birth of the true Son of God, the true light of the world, the true son of justice — which are all biblical terms for Jesus — so, the Church began to celebrate the birth of our Lord as our light and our sun. They did this on the very same days when pagans used to celebrate the winter solstice; this was a way to evangelize the pagan peoples. Celebrating the solstice was only a shadow of the truth, but Christmas was the Truth: the true Son of Justice, the True Light of the World. So, the Church began to celebrate Christ’s birth on these traditional days. In the east, January 6th became a day to celebrate what they called Epiphane, or “the manifestation,” and December 25th, in the west, became the day when they celebrated the Birth of the Lord: the Natalis.
In the 4th century, when Christianity was free to worship in public, there also began to be more communication between the churches in the east and the churches in the west. So the feasts of the Birth of Our Lord on the 25th, and the Manifestation of Our Lord on January 6th started to become related and the Christmas season started forming.
Now I want to pause for a minute, because this is something that some critics of the Church say shows that Christianity was just an outgrowth of pagan religion. Not true! This actually teaches us that
the Church reached out and met people where they were. Christians could relate to the truths of the Catholic Faith, of Christian Revelation, to the shadows of religious intuition that were present in the pagan religions.
For instance, Epiphane, was a religious term of the pagan religions which meant a manifestation of a god, or a king, or a ruler. It meant the day when that king or ruler was born, or exalted, or the day a king or ruler came to visit a particular city with all his royal pomp and circumstance. This was also a word that was used for the annual feast of particular pagan gods when it was believed that a god would enter into the temple where the people were. Epiphane was the entering in, the making present, the being present of this important divine figure.

In the Second Reading for the night Mass, the reading from the Letter of St. Paul to Titus, this word epiphane is used in the Greek of the New Testament in two places. In Titus chapter 2:11-14, Paul tells us that the grace of God has appeared — the Greek word: epiphane; the Latin: aparuit. The grace of God has appeared, saving
all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires, and to live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our Great God and of our Saviour
Jesus Christ (for “appearance” St. Paul uses epiphaneia! Adventus in Latin).
Here we have the wisdom of the Church, taking a term and a reality that the pagans understood, and baptizing it: transforming it into a word that can help reveal the truth of Christ himself.
The dates of December 25th and January 6th were chosen because they were in some ways related to the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice and to the concept of the coming of the light and the manifestation of the great royal and divine figure of the gods.

The Three Masses

We have records of a pilgrim who traveled to Jerusalem in the 4th century. She writes how on Christmas they celebrated three different prayer services.
The bishop and all the people would go first of all to Bethlehem to celebrate Mass during the night, and
then from Bethlehem they would make their way back to Jerusalem, and as they entered the city they had a prayer service while the sun was coming up; as dawn was approaching they would gather in prayer. They then continued in procession, and then as full daylight dawned they would celebrate another Mass right over the empty tomb at the Church of the Resurrection.
They would start in the place where Jesus was born, follow to the place where Jesus offered his life for the world, and finish with a glorious celebration of the Mass in the place where Christ rose from the dead.
So there were three services in Jerusalem already well- established in the 300s, possibly going back to the times of the Apostles or soon thereafter.
In Rome, what we find in the 4th century is a celebration of the Die Natalis of Christ, the birthday of Christ. We find it being celebrated during the day in St. Peter’s Basilica. But in the 5th century, some relics of the
crib from Bethlehem were brought to Rome and were housed in one of the first churches in the west that was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the church of St. Mary Major. Popular piety encouraged the celebration of the Mass at night, right over those relics, in St. Mary Major. There was also a tradition in honor of the Byzantine officials who lived in Rome, the Byzantines who had a different liturgical tradition, whose parish church was the church of St. Anastasia. This church was located in the midst of the city, so the Pope himself, in order to honor these men, would go to St. Anastasia and celebrate another Mass there. So, the sequence
of Christmas celebrations would begin at night at the church of St. Mary Major, followed by a procession to the church of St. Anastasia to celebrate Mass for the Byzantine officials, culminating in a grand procession to St. Peter’s Basilica itself for the celebration of the Mass during the day.
So here we have a liturgical tradition emerging out
of history. The tradition of having three Masses on Christmas comes out of practical considerations and the living faith of the people. That’s the lesson: the liturgy
is an expression of the Church’s love and worship of Christ, it develops under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it’s something alive. We contribute to it, we live it, it’s active, it’s not just a textbook thing. So the tradition of all priests being able to celebrate three Masses on Christmas comes out of the living faith in Jerusalem
and then throughout the ancient world in Rome, and it stayed with us.
We know the liturgy developed under the guidance
of the Holy Spirit, so there’s meaning to these three Masses, and I would say most especially there’s a theological meaning and a spiritual meaning. Let’s look at the theological meaning first.

The Meaning of the Three Christmas Masses

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, there are three Masses on Christmas because, in a theological sense, there are three births of Christ.

Birth into Eternity
The first birth of Christ is his birth in eternity.
Jesus is the Son of God the Father from all eternity. So in a certain sense, his birth in eternity is imitated or celebrated by the first Mass at night.
Birth into Time
The second birth of Jesus was into time in Bethlehem, into the Roman Empire: into the history of the world as we know it.
Birth into Individual Souls
Then there is the third Mass, the third birth, the birth of Jesus in every individual soul at baptism. This birth is also symbolized by baptismal candles being lit from the Paschal Candle at baptisms.
So the three births of Christ are symbolized and reflected by the ancient tradition of having three Masses on Christmas.
That’s the theological meaning, but there’s also a spiritual meaning for each one of us as we live our spiritual lives. There is kind of a parallel, as we’re born in a certain sense three times as well. Before time began God was already thinking of us, loving us, and knowing us. He actually says this in the scriptures. Before you were born I knew you, before you were formed
in your mother’s womb I knew you (cf. Jer 1:5). This is the first birth, the birth outside of time. And then God himself governs the circumstances of our birth in time, he’s the one who decides what country I’m going to be born in, what culture, what period, what situation. So we have our birth in time, our second birth, the second Mass. And then at the end of our life, when we die,
if we die in friendship with Christ, we are born into eternal life, and so we’re born back into eternity. In a sense, the full light of day symbolizes when we see God face to face, this is somewhat reflected in the third Mass of Christmas.
This is the heart of the liturgical ceremony: these three Masses, emerging from the reality of living the liturgy, the gritty reality of faith, as it grew under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the first Christian centuries. This tradition has taken on a meaning, a theological meaning and a spiritual meaning that we can all reflect on and benefit from.

The Emergence of Advent

We’ve looked at the establishment of the date for Christmas, and the elements that went into that. We looked at the establishment of the heart of the liturgical celebration, which is the three Masses, the meanings, where they came from, and what it means for us. Now we are ready to take a brief look at where the Season of Advent came from, how it emerged. This evolution happened in six steps.

First in the 300s we had the emergence of the dates
for Christmas and for Epiphany. This created the framework of the Christmas season, which then began to take on this twelve-day shape. Soon thereafter, there developed the Octave day, the eighth day after Christmas, which would be January 1st. The Octave
day became a celebration of the Motherhood of Mary, which is the oldest Marian Feast in the Roman Liturgy. This feast also commemorated the circumcision of Jesus, because of carry-over from the Jewish tradition that on the eighth day after being born a boy was circumcised. So you had the Motherhood of Mary celebrated
and exalted on the feast of our Lord’s circumcision. Following this there developed in Spain and in Gaul (modern day France) in the 400s a tradition of preparing for this Christmas season through a series of ascetical practices starting on December 17th.
The early Christians began to prepare for a little more than a week for these great feasts. Then in the 500s in Rome and in Italy you had a development of a liturgical period of preparation. In Spain and Gaul it was ascetical preparation: sacrifice, self-sacrifice, doing penance, preparing to celebrate these great feasts, and then in the 500s in Rome and in Italy it was a question of developing liturgical preparation for these feasts — at first it was a six-week period and then it became a four-week period right around the year 600.

By the year 600 we have four weeks for Advent,
we have the feast of Christmas, we have the feast
of Epiphany, we have the Octave, the feast of the Motherhood of Mary, so we have the whole season kind of taking shape. Advent became the second most intense liturgical season of the year following Lent and Easter. This development of the Advent season, didn’t occur in the east, which again shows us that the liturgy is a living thing, the heart and the core is from God, it’s unchangeable, it’s our worship of God as God wants us to, as the Holy Spirit developed. But it can change according to the needs and experiences of faith of
the different people and different localities, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and approval of the Church.
One of the things that developed pretty early on, was what became a favorite symbol for this season — what is called the Etimasia, something you’re already familiar with: the empty throne. The Etimasia is the empty throne of Our Lord, the emperor from heaven who left his throne and came down to earth. This symbol had
a double meaning from very early times. The throne is empty because Our Lord is coming again. He’s gone to heaven, but here on earth it’s his vicar who reigns.
So, you had this period of the first four weeks of Advent becoming a period of ascetical preparation for the coming of Our Lord, the Second Coming of Our Lord — “Lord, Come Again!”. We’re looking forward to that because the throne is empty and he’s going to come again. The second meaning of the throne symbolized the emptying of the throne of heaven when Jesus became incarnate. The second half of Advent focuses more and more on the joy of anticipation that Our Lord is going to come to earth again through the celebration of Christmas and be born into the Bethlehem of our hearts.
Are you living it actively, are you engaging in it, and how could you live it better?
How could you allow the power of the liturgy to transform your own use of time?
These are questions that I invite you to reflect on as you go through the personal questionnaire, which will help you reflect on how you live the liturgy.
The liturgy is a living expression of the Church’s love, reverence, and need for God. “How alive is my liturgical life?” The following questions may help you reflect on how you are living the liturgy.

Personal Questionnaire

1 When I think about the pace of my life, which aspects would I consider healthy, and which would I consider unhealthy, and why?
That’s the development of the liturgy of Advent and Christmas, and the biggest lesson that we’ve seen is that the liturgy really is a living thing. The liturgy is the living worship of the Church, it’s tied into the lives of the faithful and we’re meant to participate in the liturgy in an active way, in a living way.
Is “active participation” how you would describe your participation in the liturgy?
Are you allowing God, who has sanctified all of time, through the liturgy, to sanctify the time of your life — the days, the weeks, the months?
2 What are the three most influential factors in determining how I use my time? If I could change one of them, which would I change and why?
3 Liturgy involves the sanctification of time: to what extent do I allow the liturgical seasons and feasts (including Sundays) to sanctify my time?
4 Which describes me better and why?
“I fit the Church’s liturgy into my schedule.”
“I build my schedule around the liturgical year.”
5 How would my daily life (attitudes, actions, moods) be different if I were living the liturgical year more actively and profoundly?
6 In the past, what has helped me most in trying to live the liturgy?
7 What adjustment can I make today in order to live the liturgical year better?

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