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Issue of October 22, 2014

A hope note
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A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

Hope and light

December 24, 2013 | 08:44 AM

We don't know the date of Jesus' birth.

For several hundred years after Jesus, his followers showed little interest in knowing, much less celebrating, the day he was born. Origen, whom many consider the greatest Christian teacher of the third century, pointed out that it's the pagans who celebrate the birthdays of their gods and not the Christians.

It was only after the emperor Constantine, 300 years after Jesus, effectively made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire that Christians began to talk up a big birthday party for Jesus. But no one knew the date. May 20 and Jan. 6 made the short list. Finally, Dec. 25 won out. But it would be another 500 years before Christmas — "Christ's mass" — became a major Christian holy day.

Why Dec. 25? Augustine, the great fifth century Christian leader, disliked the date. He considered it heresy to identify the birth of Jesus with Saturnalia, for centuries the Roman Empire's most popular festival that partied Dec. 17 through 23 with the lighting of candles, giving of gifts and much feasting and drinking. Saturnalia concluded with Sol Invictus, Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun, on Dec. 25.

Although the birth date of Jesus is unknowable, I can't imagine a more appropriate time to locate his birth than in December. Nights are long. The short days contribute to SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and make us long for a turning. In late December, Old Sol does a pivot, daily adding more light until three months later another spring arrives.

Maybe our task is to make Christmas less about drunkenness, gluttony, getting and spending, as in Saturnalia, and more about increasing hope and light in the world.

Listen to scripture's interpretation of Jesus' advent: "Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never yet put it out."

Dr. Wayne Willis


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