Some fun things to write about at Christmas time

The trappings of the season include–unfortunately–the flu.

But the word itself is very interesting.  “Flu” is short for “influenza”, which is an Italian word meaning “influence.”  It refers to a belief of long ago in astrology.  The position of the stars was thought to “influence” how people felt.

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Anybody who has been a guest in an Italian home hears the hosts saying, “Mange!  Mange!”  (“Eat!  Eat!”)  Which gives us the root of the word “manger.”  “Manger” is actually from the French, and literally means “to eat.”  Which is fitting for an animal’s feed box.

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Mary is the undisputed star assignment in any children’s Nativity play.  But I wonder how many of us know that there is no such name in the Bible.  In the Scriptures, the name is “Miriam.”  It’s Hebrew.  Miriam was the sister of Moses.  When the writings that we call the New Testament were composed, and the mother of Jesus was written about, they were written in Greek.  In Greek, “Miriam” was written “Maria.”

Interestingly, the Hebrew word “Miriam” means “rebellious.”  The nuns never told us THAT.

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There is also no such name as “Jesus” in the original Scriptures.  In Hebrew, it’s “Yeh-shu-ah” (in English, “Joshua”). But in the New Testament, Greek has no “sh” sound, nor a “J” sound.  So “Yeh-shu-ah” became “YAY-soos.”  Only in English did the word become “Jesus.”

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Speaking of Mary, there is often some confusion at this time of year over the Immaculate Conception.  When Mary was said to give birth without having any sexual relations with Joseph, that belief is known as the Virgin Birth.  The Immaculate Conception, which feast day is December 8, concerns not the birth of Jesus but the birth of Mary.

It has been a traditional belief since the earliest centuries of Christianity that “Original Sin” enters human nature through the act of conception. (Original Sin means that before we actually DO anything wrong, our human nature already is leaning in the direction of rebellion against God.)  The warping of our human nature is thought to occur at conception.  Lust, specifically, is said to be the sin that soils our human nature from the very start.

Theologians reasoned that if Mary was untouched by lust in becoming pregnant, she herself must have been pure right from the very start–from her own conception.  Thus, theologians asserted that Mary’s parents conceived her without the sin of lust.  It was a clean conception–an Immaculate Conception.

The dogma became official in Roman Catholicism with a pronouncement in 1854 by Pope Pius IX (who, by the way, served longer than any other Pope:  32 years, from 1846-1878.  To give an idea of how long 32 years IS for a Pope, the pontificate of John Paul II lasted 27 years).

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Why don’t we know the date of Jesus’ birth?

Jesus was a commoner.  In His day, a birth would be public record only for royalty.

In our own time, birth information can be so uncertain in the poorest communities that the great soccer player, Pele, does not know the date of his own birth.  Record-keeping wasn’t exact in the ghetto where he was born.  His birth occurred either on October 21 or October 23 in 1940.

One of the earliest Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria (Egypt), believed Jesus to be born on May 20,

The first written record of December 25 being the birth date of Jesus wasn’t until the year 336!  (It was found in a Roman Catholic calendar.)

December 25 became the traditional time to celebrate the Birth because, originally, that time in December had been a pagan celebration.  Pagans in ancient Rome and elsewhere worshipped the Sun as a god.  When the Sun seemed to be “going away”–as the orb became smaller and smaller approaching the winter solstice of December 21 (the shortest day of the year)–fear must have struck.  Their source of heat, their source of light seemed to be abandoning them.  But then after the solstice, the Sun appeared to be returning, getting larger.  Thus, pagans celebrated at this time of year.

Christians at first were greatly outnumbered in the pagan surroundings of ancient times.  There were no church buildings.  People simply met in houses.  Often believers were hounded.  They would not worship the gods of the Roman Empire.  Thus, Christians were thought to be atheists!  They were blamed for angering the gods, thus causing the ill fortunes that frequented the Empire.  Persecution followed.

But in the 300s, the Roman Emperor Constantine favored the faith, under the influence of his mother Helena.  Christianity boomed.

But the Church could not stop people from celebrating the old holidays–like the Sun festival in December.  It would be like today trying to outlaw tailgating at a football game.  So the Church authorities simply overlaid the celebration of Jesus’ birth on an already-festive occasion.

The practice, however, occurred only at first in the Western half of the Roman Empire (under the influence of the Pope).  The Eastern half was under the influence of the rival Orthodox Church.  The Orthodox practice had been to celebrate the Birth on January 6, Epiphany

Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “revelation.”  Epiphany refers to the “revelation” of Jesus at His baptism as the Son of God.  The date was also used in the Orthodox churches to commemorate the Birth.

It wasn’t until later in the 300s that both Eastern and Western Christianity coordinated the festivals–Christmas for the Birth, Epiphany for the Baptism (and also for the visit of the Wise Men).

Christmas, however, is celebrated on different dates among Western and Eastern churches.

The Orthodox hold Christmas according to the ancient Roman calendar that had been issued by Julius Caesar (the Julian calendar).  This calendar came into effect in 46 BC.  But it had a slight miscalculation.

The Julian calendar marked a year as being an average of 365 days and 6 hours.  It was off by nearly 11 minutes.  Over the centuries since 46 BC, those 11 minutes accumulated.  By the 1500s, the calendar was noticeably out of sync with the Sun.

The calendar was declaring the Spring equinox (when there are 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness in the Northern Hemisphere) nearly two weeks in advance of the actual position of the Sun squarely above the Equator.  The Julian calendar was out of harmony with the Sun by 11 days.

Under the authority of Pope Gregory XIII, a new calendar was issued in 1582.  The 11 days were simply erased!  In 1582, October 4 was followed by October 15.  The calendar was now in sync with the position of the Sun in relation to the Earth.  The Gregorian calendar is the one that most people use today in Western culture.

But the Orthodox churches still adhere to the Julian calendar in setting religious feasts.  Thus, Orthodox Christmas is held a couple of weeks after the Western Christmas.  That is, January 7.  According to the Julian calendar, January 7 is December 25.  Over more centuries, the Orthodox Christmas will move to later in January.

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