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The Christmas Sun


Greek Myths & Christian Mystery, 1963

The second illustration from which we can learn what was - and above all what was not- the true relationship between the Christian cult and the solar devotions of antiquity, is to be found in the early history of the two feasts celebrating Christ's birth ­ Epiphany and Christmas. Since the facts in this case are exceptionally well documented, it is all the easier to get the picture clear.

Before we explore the actual points of cultic contact, however, we shall again have first to outline the basic tenets of Christian dogma around which the cultic garment came gradually to drape its lovely classical folds. Certain words in the Apostles' Creed were from primitive times among the fundamentals of the Christian faith: conceptus de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine, and the accounts in Luke and Matthew which constitute the biblical foundation of this belief are like great blocks of hewn stone. The variegated systems of so-called critical thought which have sought to explain the belief in the Virgin Birth as myths or products of theosophical systems and of the general atmosphere of the surrounding Hellenistic world, have for the most part already proved their own undoing. Their authors have from time to time had really new insights which have proved of genuine value, but because such men were never able to see the picture as a whole, those very insights have merely provided serviceable tools for the demolition of the theories of predecessors-predecessors who had trodden the same thorny path and sought to treat the Virgin Birth as a classifiable phenomenon of comparative religion.

In actual fact the true relation between dogmatic Christian belief and its external cultic garment is in the present instance even easier to grasp than it was in the case of the Easter sun; for it is a well established fact that the earliest instances of anything in the nature of a cultic enactment of the Christmas mystery do not occur till more than two centuries after the first beginnings of Christianity. The inference seems clear enough. Since the mystery of the human birth of Jesus at first found no expression whatever in any kind of cult or visual imagery - though its dogmatic propagation was, if anything, all the more positive and insistent -, it is obvious that this article of faith cannot possibly have resulted from contact with sun-cults or any other cults. This circumstance however did not prevent it from being the rock from which the Church, wholly sure of her own doctrine and identity, reached out in the third and fourth centuries, appropriated whatever she found serviceable among the thoughts and longings and cultic forms of solar piety, and then used them to express and illustrate a mystery that was uniquely her own.

Before proceeding to a more detailed discussion, may I establish one point of great importance? The belief that our Lord was born true man but born of a virgin is intimately connected with the mystery of the resurrection and here my argument joins on to the conclusions reached earlier in this book. Jesus' resurrection from the dead was for him the beginning of a new and never ending life: "Death shall no more have dominion over him" (Rom. 6. 9). Christ is truly Sol invictus, his sunrise is a new birth.

Now this was a thought that was also familiar to the pagan of antiquity. Helios is born anew every morning -"aliusque et idem nasceris", sang Horace in his Carmen saeculare to almus Sol. Even the theology of the New Testament already sees resurrection and birth as two aspects of the same thing: the victor of Easter morning is also "the firstborn from the dead" (Col. I. 18; Apoc. I. 5) and Paul quite explicitly connects the resurrection with the words of Psalm 2. 7: "Thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee" (Acts 13. 33).

We find an echo of all this in Clement of Alexandria, as we have already seen. He refers to Christ as "Sun of the Resurrection, be gotten before the morning star, giving life with thy rays". The grave is the womb. Both represent night, out of which the sun rises. "At night was Christ  born in Bethlehem," says a Greek sermon for Holy Saturday, "at night he is born again in Sion."

This idea of a similarity between resurrection and birth gains support from the Graeco-Roman habit of regarding birthdays as a kind of sunrise. "Sunlight is the symbol of birth," says Plutarch [Aetia Romana, 2]; and the Christian Clement says much the same. "Sunrise", he tells us, "is the symbol of a birthday [Stromata VII, 7, 43]." Thus the sunrise of his Easter birth is for Jesus but the completion of that mystery of light that was proclaimed on the night when he was born of Mary. He is "the dayspring from on high" (Luke I.78), "a light to the revelation of the Gentiles" (Luke 2. 32).

Nay more, when in the mystery of baptism the grace of the risen Christ is imparted to man, then such a man becomes "a new creature" (II Cor. 5· 17); the grace of baptism is a new birth for in a new fashion Christ is born in the heart of the believer. The Easter vigil, filled with the light of Christ, the nocturnal sun, is the night of birth, and the newly baptized are "new-born children- infantes'', as those who ascended out of the womb which is the baptismal pool were called in the ancient Church (I Peter 2. 2).

Thus, even on the purely dogmatic plane there is an intimate connexion between the mysteries of Easter and Christmas. If we regard the matter from the point of view of cultic development, however, we need have no hesitation in saying that the forms taken by the feast of Christmas, the origin of which is comparatively late, are simply modelled on those of the much older feast of Easter; and the common cultic basis from which this later imitation derived was the world of solar mysticism, for it is this that provided both these solemn nights with a fitting imagery. It is, however, very largely an imagery expressly designed to repudiate and contradict the solar cults of later antiquity, but its affinity to the forms of the latter is too clear to be wholly denied. Prümm is surely right when he says, "Christmas touches Easter over a wide front of common ideas, the idea of redemption and that of the grace of adoption as children of God. This explains why light­ symbolism enters so powerfully into both." [Zur Enstehung der Geburtsfeier, p. 222]

The meaning of Easter is that the life that began at Christmas is turned into life eternal. In the case of Christ this change is final and complete; for the baptized Christian it takes place in a sacramental sense: Jesus is for ever now "the brightness of his [the Father's] glory" (Heb. I.3), but even the baptized Christian whom this brightness of Christ has illuminated is now "a child of light" (Eph. 5· 8; I Thes. 5· 5), which simply means "a child of the sun". The baptized Christian is - to use the words of the inscription referred to above - a sun-child.

Christmas is therefore nothing but an anticipation of Easter, the beginning of a marvellous springtime, because at Christmas, though still deeply hidden, the "Sun of Righteousness" arose. An anonymous Greek has described this springtime mystery of Christmas in truly wonderful fashion in words that take on meaning only when read in reference to the springtime feast of the Easter sun: "When after the cold of winter we see the mild light of spring, then the earth begins to put forth grass and green things, then by virtue of the awakening powers within them, the branches of the trees begin to beautify themselves and the air shines with the brightness of Helios. The choirs of the birds rise up to the sky and brim over with melody. But lo ! for us Christ has appeared like some heavenly  spring,  having  risen like the sun from the Virgin's womb. He has put to flight the cold storm-clouds of the devil and has roused to new life the sluggish hearts of them that slept, having with his sunny rays pierced the mists of ignorance. Let us therefore lift up our spirits towards the bright and blessed glory of this heavenly light."  [Pseudo-Crysostom, Christmas homily, (PG 61, 763)].

Now a great deal has recently been written on the cultic origins of this essentially Roman and Latin feast at Christmas, but in order to get a clear picture of them I must, for reasons which will soon be apparent, first say something about the feast of Epiphany.


The Feast of Christmas

We have seen that the feast of Epiphany came into being as an institution specifically designed to counter and weaken the Eastern form of sun-worship and its mystery rituals. In Rome, however, during the course of the third century sun-worship, favoured and protected as it was by the rulers of the empire, had achieved a position of great power and splendour, and had indeed virtually become the official religion of the State. But the concluding chapter in this story of Christianity's ultimate settlement with paganism, the chapter that is laid in Rome, follows much the same pattern as that which we have already studied. The Church opposes, the Church dethrones, the Church consecrates and in the end the Church brings home. The result of all this is the establishment and liturgical development of the feast of Christmas on December 25, the feast, whose magic even to this day enthralls the hearts of Christian and non-Christian alike.

During the lull between the persecutions of Decius and Diocletian the Church must surely have regarded the rise of the imperial sun - cult as an ever - increasing menace. To catch something of the spiritual atmosphere of that time, we should have to imagine our­selves in that vast temple of Sol on the Campus Agrippae, the temple built by the Emperor Aurelian after his victory over Palmyra, with its solemn collegium of the Pontifices Solis. We should have to witness the brilliance of the new feast of Natalis Invicti that was to be celebrated from now on, on each December 25, the day of the winter solstice. Certain fragments of Cornelius Labeo which have been preserved for us by Macrobius, are very much worth reading in this general connexion, and it is particularly worth noting that this writer identifies Helios-Sol with the Jewish Yao and with Dionysus. Even if we disregard the triumphant rise of Mithras-worship, at least in the Roman army, this shows us how great was the danger that confronted the Church, from this kind of solar syncretism.

Something like a symbol of the time, and of the conditions prevailing in it, is preserved for us in the so-called chronographer's record for the year 354. It contains a notice, a double one, relating to the same day, December 25, and reads: 

VIII Kalendas Ianuarias Natalis Invicti. [Corpus Inscriptionum latinarum, I,  Berlin, 1983, p. 256]

VIII Kalendas Ianuarias natus Christus in Bethlehem Iudeae.

This chronographer's notice proves that by the year 354 a regular liturgical feast of the birthday of our Lord was being celebrated in Rome on December 25. Indeed from other statements of the same chronographer it can be shown that this was already the case in 336, while the fact that the African Donatists celebrated this feast makes it reasonably certain that before the time of the persecution of Diocletian it had already been brought over from Rome. It would seem then that this feast was first instituted at some time towards the close of the third century, at the very time, that is, when the feast of Epiphany originated in the East, and both feasts came into being as the result of the liturgical and apologetic needs of that long period of tranquillity that preceded the final persecution; both are the Church's answer to that spiritual hunger that lies at the bottom of the sun-cults.

This attempt at dating may seem a little bold. Yet one thing emerges quite plainly from all the relevant fourth-century texts: it is that the nativity feast of December 25 was always regarded as a Christian solar feast and that men saw in it the Church's answer to the sun-cults of the fading Graeco-Roman world. A highly interesting Latin treatise which is assigned by Dom Wilmart, [A. Wilmart, “La collection des 38 homélies latines de St Jean Chrysostome”, in Journal of Theological Studies, 19 (1918), pp. 305-27] its discoverer, to the end of the third century but which in my opinion probably comes from the early part of the fourth, deals with the question of the winter solstice and its relation to the nativity of Christ. In reference to December 25 we find the author saying this:

"Sed et Invicti Natalem appellant. Quis utique tam invictus nisi Dominus noster qui mortem subactam devicit? Vel quod dicant Solis esse Natalem: ipse est Sol iustitiae, de quo Malachias Propheta dixit: orietur vobis timentibus nomen ipsius Sol iustitiae et sanitas in pennis eius."

(But they also call [this day] the birthday of the unconquered sun. Yet who is as unconquered as our Lord who threw down death and conquered him? They may call this day the birthday of Sol, but he alone is the Sun of Righteousness of whom the Prophet Malachi said: There shall arise to you who fear his name the Sun of Righteousness and there shall be healing under his wings.)

Here we can detect that same cry of victory which Ephraem uttered in distant Syria when he sang of the feast of Epiphany: the sun has conquered. This Christian cry of joy will never again be silenced. Let us call back to life some of the voices of the great chorus that uttered it; we can still hear its echoes in the classical phrases of  Rome  when  the Catholic liturgy celebrates its nocturnal mystery at Christmas.

The inner meaning and purpose of the Roman feast of Christmas find particularly explicit expression in those places where during the course of the fourth century this new liturgical creation had already begun to penetrate in its triumphant advance through the Church; this is particularly true of the Greek East where it was gradually displacing the strongly rooted feast of the Epiphany. We are plunged into the midst of this particular debate by a sermon delivered by Jerome to his monks in Bethlehem. Jerome had brought from Rome the new custom of celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25 whereas in the East the practice of celebrating this on January 6 was still universally observed. Jerome reproves the presumption of the Christians who had for generations inhabited Jerusalem and Bethlehem- and does so with a certain mocking humour- because these insisted that their dating of this feast followed a genuine local tradition that had real historical value. Then he points out that even nature with her solstice supports the Roman practice and says:

"Even creation justifies our preaching and the cosmos testifies to the truth of our words. Up till this day the days have continued to wane, but from this day onward the darkness grows less. The light grows, the nights diminish. The day grows greater, and error grows less; up rises truth. For today there is born unto us the Sun of Righteousness." [Homily of the birth of the Lord”: G. Morin, “Hieronimi Presbyteri Tractatus sive Homiliae”, (Anecdota Maredsolana, III, 2,) Maredsous, 1987, p.397, ll.9-13].

When Jerome speaks, as he does here, of the darkness of error receding, he is thinking of the pagan cult whose sun mysteries were still very much alive; Emperor Julian's attempt to make Helios once more into the Dominus Imperii had shown that plainly enough, and in Jerome's day the sanctuary of Adonis on the Janiculum in Rome could still be visited by devotees seeking solace in that solar pantheism which by now had absorbed the figures of the Syrian gods.  It is therefore not difficult to guess the nature of Jerome's thoughts when he celebrated the nocturnal solemnities commemorating the birth of Christ in the cave at Bethlehem, for that same cave had since Hadrian's day been a sanctuary of Adonis. Rewrites of this in one of his letters: "Bethlehem, which is now ours and the most venerable place in the whole world, was once overshadowed by the grove of Tamuz, that is to say, of Adonis, and in the cave where once Christ whimpered as a little child, there sounded lamentations for the beloved of Venus." Truly the Christians must have felt that their nocturnal sun-feast of December 25 was a victory over all the pagan mysteries. You will recall that Gregory of Nazianzus spoke in this sense on the day of Epiphany and you can hear the same note in the words which Firmicus Maternus puts into the mouth of the sun-another proof by the way, of the manner in which all mysteries at this time got drawn into the orbit of heliolatry:

"If the sun [he says] were to call the whole human race together and address it, he might well shatter you with his words. He would surely say, 'Who has driven you to this infamous deed, 0 ye sons of men that perish, in that in your impious passion and unheeding madness you let me die and be born…? Bewail Dionysus, bewail Proserpina, bewail Adonis, bewail Osiris, but do not offer this insult to my own dignity. At the beginning of days I was created by God and that is sufficient for me.'"

Christmas served both to combat and consecrate the old Graeco­-Roman feeling for the sun, and it continued to do so even when the ancient mystery cults were already dead; for to the soul of the people December 25 meant something more than the fact that it happened of old to have been designated as the day of Sol novus or Natalis. What lived on was the feeling of religious awe with which such men followed the happenings in the starry heavens and the paths of the sun. The Church sanctified this feeling through  the mystery of Christmas. "Born of his Father," says Augustine in a Christmas sermon, "Christ created all the days. Being born of his mother he consecrated this one"- and by consecrating it drew towards himself and gave form and direction to the vague and inchoate feeling of awe with which that day was already associated.

The story telling how Christian truth filled up the measure of this ancient reverence for the new-born sun is easy to follow. Let me deal first with the Greek East where the Roman feast was accepted towards the end of the fourth century. Gregory of Nazianzus personally introduced it in Constantinople and proudly referred to himself as the chorus leader, of the new mystery. Superb indeed is that first Christmas sermon of his, so full of the characteristic rhythms of Gregory's  Greek: "Once again the dark shadows of winter draw away, once again the light rises towards the zenith." Chrysostom, who first celebrates the feast in Antioch, calls it the source of light and starting-point for all the coming feasts, while in Alexandria, where once were celebrated the mysteries of the new-born Aion, the feast of Christmas is introduced after the Council of Ephesus in 43I. No longer now does the cry: "The virgin has given birth, now the light begins to wax", go up in the Koreion, instead it is in the basilica, now radiant with light, that, speaking of a very different virgin, Paul of Emesa, the age-old city of the sun, breaks out into the cry, as he preaches his first Christmas sermon, "Oh the wonder of it! The Virgin has given birth-and remains a virgin!".

Turn now to the Roman West where the feast of Natalis Invicti was a more homely and popular affair than the corresponding feast of the Greeks. While in Rome the competitors in the thirty races of the Agon Solis were tearing round the arena, while bonfires were being lit in honour of the sun's birthday by men who had reverently bowed their heads towards the sunrise, the Church was celebrating a true solar feast. While the pagans were giving noisy expression to this festive spirit before the church, Augustine was telling his flock of the mystery of the new-born sun which is Christ. "Natalis dies quo natus est dies- Christ is the true day of the sun." "Let us rejoice, my brethren," he says, "however much the pagans may shout, for it is not the visible sun that makes this day holy, but its invisible maker." "Yes, my brethren," he says on the Christmas following, "we will keep this day holy, but not like the unbelievers because of this sun, but because of him who is the sun's Creator."

The extent to which this day of Natalis provided an opportunity for settling matters with the residual vestiges of the ancient sun-cults, which were apparent even among Christians, is evident from the words addressed at Christmas by Pope Leo to the faithful in the middle of the fifth century. There are those, he says, "who think that these solemnities of ours should be held in honour not so much because of the birth of Christ as because of the rising of the new sun''. Indeed he finds that he must reprove his Christians for bowing their heads towards the rising sun from the very steps of St Peter's Basilica. "For before they enter the basilica of the holy apostle Peter, they mount  the steps, turn round, and with their heads bent down they bow in honour of the shining disc." And he closes his Christmas homily with a hymn to the beauty of the heavenly bodies, pointing out that these are only a pale reflexion of the light of Christ: "Let the light of the heavenly bodies work upon thy fleshly sense, but embrace with all the glow of love which thy soul can bring forth the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world."

We have yet another and somewhat later witness, who, despite a rather naïve over-simplification of the issue, has grasped and preserved for us the real inwardness of the relationship between the sun-cult and the Church. A Syrian writer of glosses on Dionysius, Bar Salibi, tells us of the reason why the date of the Lord's birthday was set back to December 25 from January 6 and explains it thus:

"The reason why the Fathers changed this feast from January 6 to December 25 was, it is said, as follows: The heathen were accustomed on December 25 to celebrate the feast of the birthday of the sun and to light fires in honour of the day, and even Christians were invited to take part in these festivities. When the doctors of the Church observed that Christians were being induced to participate in these practices, they decided to celebrate this day as the true anniversary of Christ's birth and to keep January 6 for the celebration of the feast of Epiphany, and this custom they have continued to observe to the present day together with the practice of lighting fires."

I should like to present to you one more piece of evidence. It provides us with yet another illustration of how in the West Christianity and Graeco-Roman ideas interacted with one another in regard to the institution of Christmas. It also shows us how from a certain point of time Christian thought and teaching got the upper hand, so that what had been happening before in the domain of the spirit began, so to speak, to happen in reverse. The "masses" are now Christian, and the few pagans that still live among them seem actually to be getting their ideas about the sun from Christianity. In the middle of the fifth century Bishop Maximus of Turin delivered a Christmas homily which opened with the following words:

"It is good that the people should call this birthday of our Lord the day of Sol novus, for they certainly do so and are so determined in the practice that even Jews and pagans use the same term. Let us by no means seek to change this, for with the resurrection of our Saviour there is a renewal not only of salvation for the whole human race, but of the brightness of the sun. If the sun grew dark at the passion of Christ, it must of necessity shine more brightly at his birth.''

This brings us to the threshold of the Middle Ages. And now the Church, having consecrated antiquity's love of the sun, passes it on in her Christmas liturgy to the peoples of the North. The Missale Gothicum from which in the seventh century the Franks learnt how to pray begins the Christmas midnight mass with these words: "Thou hast risen for us, O Jesus Christ, as the true Sun of Righteousness, thou hast descended from heaven as Saviour of the human race." And even to this day the classic cadences of the Roman liturgy tell of this same mystery of the new sunlight that arose in Christ. It is the great gift from the treasury of antiquity, transfigured by the Christian faith. I will not impair by translation the loveliness of this Latin prayer, the prayer that goes up at midnight on Christmas:

Deus, qui hanc sacratissimam noctem veri luminis Jecisti illustratione clarescere: da quaesumus; ut, cuius lucis mysteria in terra cognovimus, eius quoque gaudiis in caelo perfruamur.

Whenever we open the liturgical text for Christmas, we encounter the sparkle of this Christian mystery of the sun. "The Saviour of the world shall arise like the sun and descend into the Virgin's womb", says an antiphon of the vigil, while at vespers of the eve of this new "Sun" day there is sung, "When heaven's sun has arisen, ye shall see the King of Kings coming forth from his Father, as a bridegroom comes forth from his chamber."

What is here said concerning the mystery of the true sun, what is here cast in the noble speech of Rome for all the peoples of the future to read, was proclaimed in Greek by Chrysostom during his Christmas sermon at Antioch-with a vividness that is peculiarly his own. Let me close this section with these words of the Golden Mouth:

"Consider what it would mean to see the sun descend from the heavens and walk about the earth. If this could not happen, in the case of the shining body that we can see, without causing all who saw it to be amazed, then think what it means that the Sun of Righteousness should send forth its rays in our flesh and should shine into our souls."

H. Rahner, Greek Myths & Christian Mystery (London: Burns Oates, 1963) pp. 129-134, 145-155