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New Year’s Day 2012 – The Church v pagan gods

January 1, 2012

Why is Christmas Day on the 25th December?
Why is Mary, Virgin Mother of God, celebrated on New Year’s Day?

This note gives the full background to my homily for 1st January 2012. If you want to hear the version I preached, you can listen at http://www.deaconphilip.podbean.com

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Have you ever heard someone say that Christmas is really a pagan Winter festival that was somehow stolen by the Christians? This sort of thing is usually said as a cheap shot at the Church, trying to undermine the authority and truth of Christianity and replace it with godless, secular or pagan festivities.

But it is true that Christmas was established by the Church to deliberately rival false gods. At this time of year 2,000 years ago society was dominated by pagan festivities. Many people worshipped the sun, and the year end was a particularly ‘godless’ time of year for the Christians because the sun worshippers marked the shortest day of the year, December 21st, by celebrating renewed life, as the days got longer again. Also, to make things worse, in the 200s and 300s AD a new cult of Sol Invictus (the ‘invincible sun’) became popular amongst the Romans, a pagan feast which was actually celebrated on December 25th.

Now, in contrast, the highlight of the year for the early Christians was at Easter. Easter was (and remains) THE major Christian celebration. The early Christians knew and taught the significance of Jesus’ birth, but they didn’t particularly celebrate Christmas. Instead, through the year, they would commemorate the martyrs (as we continue to do today).

But as the centuries passed the Church gradually developed services to mark the Incarnation, the coming of Jesus, God being born as man. Unfortunately, then as now, Christians were always at risk of being influenced by the wider society in which they lived, picking up bad habits. For example, in the 5th century Pope Leo the Great had to preach a homily to remind Christians that as they came in to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome they must not copy the sun worshippers by bowing their heads to the rising sun! He told them that even if they were doing it to acknowledge the God that had created the sun, even so it gave a false impression to the pagans that they were worshipping the sun itself, so they must stop doing it.[1]

So it was that from the 5th century onwards that the Church began to celebrate Christmas in ways that we would recognise today. One of the things they introduced, which we continue to do to this day, was to mark Jesus’ birthdays by eight days of special services, what we call ‘The Christmas Octave’.

Why eight days? Well, the idea of celebrating major religious events for a period of eight days comes from our Jewish forefathers, such as the “Feast of Tabernacles” and the “Dedication of the Temple”.

So the Church has a tradition that says that Christmas Day is so good, we can celebrate it eight times! Eight days in a row.

Today, the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God, is the eighth day, the final day of those eight days of special celebrations marking the astonishing mystery of The Incarnation, the coming of God as a human being.

Christmas Day was THE FIRST DAY OF THE CHRISTMAS OCTAVE

So Boxing Day, the Feast of St. Stephen is the SECOND DAY OF THE CHRISTMAS OCTAVE.

St. Stephen’s day is called “Boxing Day” because of the Catholic tradition of opening the parish poor box and sharing out the money amongst the poor. We continue that tradition in this parish: offerings left by the crib here go to the parish SVP to help the needy and poor. This year, on Christmas Eve, I went onto the Gospel Farm estate and simply asked passers-by to tell me where the desperately poor families lived on the estate. Within 90 minutes I had shared out the Christmas parcels prepared by the young people at Archbishop Ilsley’s School to some very grateful families. It was a privilege to be able to do that.

But why does the Church celebrate Boxing Day by remembering its first martyr?

The fact that Jesus was born means that God not only experienced our frail humanity, acknowledging an understanding of what it is to live a God-fearing life in a very hostile world, it also means that Jesus shared in our inevitable human death. It is because of His death and then His resurrection that we are released from the hold that death held over humanity before Jesus was born into the world. So on the second day of the Christmas Octave, we celebrate the feast of the deacon Saint Stephen, who was the first man to die a martyr’s death, to go to heaven, for defending his love of his God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who, through the Nativity, is true God and true man.

On 27th December, THE THIRD DAY OF THE CHRISTMAS OCTAVE, the Church remembers St. John the Apostle, ‘the disciple Jesus loved’. You could almost say that John was Jesus’ favourite friend, the man closest to Jesus after His mother.

St John was a great theologian and his writings explain the mystery of the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus:

v      his gospel focuses on Jesus being God, being divine (“In the beginning was the Word”);

v      he explains how God became made Man for our sakes (“The Word was made flesh”);

v      his theology of the Cross, which explains the sacrificial nature of Christ death by crucifixion, is unique amongst the Gospels;

v      and so much of John’s mystical visions of heaven described in the Book of Revelation are echoed in the Mass, the ‘Supper of the Lamb’.

THE FOURTH DAY OF THE CHRISTMAS OCTAVE, December 28, is the Feast of The Holy Innocents.

The birth of Jesus is an example of God directly intervening in the history of the world. Think of the consequences of His birth on humanity – it is immeasurable. But right from the outset there were people determined to oppose God’s plan for our salvation, and the Holy Innocents were the baby children of Bethlehem who were slaughtered by the tyrant King Herod as he tried to eliminate Jesus from human history. So Herod’s victims were witnesses to the birth of Christ, unable to defend themselves, dying in silence. The Church honours these babies as silent martyrs.

On THE FIFTH DAY OF THE CHRISTMAS OCTAVE an Englishman, St Thomas Becket, an Archbishop of Canterbury, is remembered throughout the world by the Church as an example to us all of someone who gave his life defending the morals taught by the Church against King, Henry II, who lost sight of the difference between good and evil in his stubborn determination to have his own way. St Thomas was yet another martyr who highlights how we Christians should be willing to humble ourselves, to lose everything, to defend Truth – something we have the courage to do through faith in the example of our God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.

The SIXTH DAY OF THE CHRISTMAS OCTAVE, on December 30th, is The Feast of the Holy Family.

At the incarnation Jesus was born as a baby into a family. He was truly human. The Church teaches that the Christian family is the bedrock both of the Church and of wider society. Jesus was a member of an earthly family, showing us how He benefited from the love and care of his first teachers, Mary and Joseph, who took their responsibility for Jesus’ religious formation and education very seriously, giving Him the up-bringing that prepared Him for his adult mission.

New Year’s Eve is THE SEVENTH DAY OF THE CHRISTMAS OCTAVE, when the Church commemorates Pope Sylvester I. He was the pope at the time when the state persecutions of Christianity ended and the open, public worship of God through Jesus Christ finally was allowed across the Roman Empire. Pope Sylvester led the Church 300 years after the resurrection, and this day recognises the importance of the Church in God’s plan of salvation for the world. The Church is not just some other human organisation – it is the mysterious ‘Body of Christ’, and at its head stands Jesus Christ, truly present amongst His followers, inspiring each of them to help build the Kingdom of God on this earth. The Church became active at the command of God through Jesus Christ. And this the point about the Christmas Octave – God’s plan for the Church would not have happened except for the fact that God came down from heaven at the incarnation, and then, after the resurrection, sent the Holy Spirit to guide and protect it until the end of time.

And today, one week later, is THE EIGHTH DAY OF THE CHRISTMAS OCTAVE.

This feast in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been deliberately made the eighth day because it’s the 1st of January.

This feast in honour of Mary dates from really early on in Roman times. Why? Again, to substitute a distracting and misleading pagan festival, this time for the pagan God Janus which was celebrated at the beginning of the year.

Janus was supposed to be the god of doors and gates, the god of beginnings and the master of time. That’s why the Roman liked big ceremonial gates for big military parades – the gates, which looked like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, were actually temples to the god Janus.

So the Church’s tactic to counter pagan Roman gods was to deliberately celebrate Christian feast days so as to deflect the attention of faithful Christians away from the razzmatazz of the pagan feasts.  The Church replaced Janus’ day on the first day of the year with the far more compelling and REAL person called Mary – the Mother of God. Mary is not a god – we do not worship her. No, there is only one God that we worship. But we venerate Mary, we hold her in great respect as one of the most important people in human history and someone whom we should use as a good example of Christian life.

Mary’s religious significance lies in the ultimate contribution she made as part of the fulfilment of God’s plan of salvation. She was the one chosen by God to be greeted by the words of an angel:

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”

Blessed are you among women,

And blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus.”

She was the Mother of God! And this title for Mary – the Mother of God – is very significant. It would be factually correct to call her “Mother of Jesus”, for Mary was indeed the mother of Jesus. But her title ‘Mother of God makes a profound theological point. Mary was the mother of a child who was much more than an ordinary baby. What marks out Christians from other faiths is our belief that Jesus is both God AND man, God born in human form. Born at the Incarnation.

This doctrine of the Incarnation has been the teaching of the Church from its very beginnings. Unfortunately, over time, people began to dispute the significance of the words they were using, and that is why, in 431AD the Church declared official Mary’s title as “Mother of God” – so that there was absolutely no confusion. And the clear statement of Christian beliefs written at that time, called the creed, is still used today. And you may noticed how, when we say during the Mass the very creed that emerged from the Council of Ephesus in 431AD, some people make a special gesture when we reach the words “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” Some people bow their heads. I say some people because not everyone does it. But really we should all bow our heads at this point, together. It is non-verbal communication, emphasising through both our words AND our posture that this really is an important part of the creed. We shouldn’t be embarrassed or too proud to do it. We’re in Church – don’t worry the atheists and sceptics aren’t here to laugh at you. (They’ll somewhere else worshipping false gods – cars, shopping, football, science, whatever.) No, for us, we bow our heads at these particular words in the creed to signal that we are all Christians together, in a united Christian community called the Catholic Church. By bowing our heads we are emphasising the words, emphasising our belief that Jesus Christ is both God and man. And we are saying that Mary is the Virgin Mother of God.

Another point that shows how the early Church was quite clever in substituting Mary’s feast in place of the pagan god Janus. Some of the pagan ideas people had about Janus fit with Mary. Today we would say their pagan mindset, their understanding of the world, allowed them to grasp the key doctrines of the new Christian faith very quickly. Those early pagan  converts could see how Mary really is the gateway to our salvation, that  she gave birth to Jesus who, unlike Janus, is the real master of time, and her miraculously conceived son Jesus Christ opened the way to God’s re-creation of a completely new world. Mary, the Mother of God, is the means by which God revealed Himself to the world and changed the world forever.

Because of Mary we now live in a newly created reality, we live in the times of the new, Divine King, Jesus Christ. That is what it means when we call this new year ‘2012AD’. It means ‘the Year of the Lord 2012’.

Every New Year’s Day the Church consecrates the coming year of Our Lord to the prayers of Mary the Mother of God; and since 1974 it has also marked a day of prayers for peace in the world.[2]

Today the Church throughout the world is honouring the Mary’s role in the mystery of our salvation, recognising her special place in making it possible for us to be found worthy of worshipping God and receiving the Author of life in Holy Communion.

As we begin this new year, remember that very young, modest girl who was told by an angel that she was chosen by God for a very special purpose. The same message applies to each of us. Each of us is special and unique, created by God for a particular purpose. So make sure you are not distracted by the razzmatazz of the pagan world. Be inspired by the Holy Spirit and use the opportunity of this Mass to dedicate yourself to going out and changing the world for the better. It is all part of God’s Plan. Like Mary, our heroine, you too can, in the coming year, say ‘yes’ to God.


[1] Pope Leo I, Sermon VII

[2] Pope Paul VI (1974), Papal Encyclical  Marialis Cultus.

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