A Christmas Homily delivered at St. Mark’s and Christ Chapel Anglican Churches, 24 December, 2020
The Rev’d Dr. T. Y. Hiter
Various sources dealing with the Nativity
The Gospel selection for today—that is, for tomorrow, which is actually today, using the Jewish practice of evening being the beginning of the day—gives us a great deal of rich detail concerning who Jesus was—and is—but not much information dealing with when he was born. Traditionally, of course, the date we celebrate is December 25th, but there are problems with that date, and always have been. Indeed, while John tells us about Jesus’ incarnation, he doesn’t really tell us anything at all about when it happened. Matthew, from whom we get the stories about the Magi—the three wise men—focuses much more on Jesus’ genealogy than he does on the birth. Indeed, as soon as he settles the issue of Joseph’s acceptance of Mary’s pregnancy, Matthew goes right to the Magi. Mark doesn’t mention the birth at all, and only Luke gives us many details concerning the trip to Bethlehem, the birth in a stable, and so forth. None of them tell us the date.
“Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus’s birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement… picked November 18. Hippolytus … figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday … An anonymous document[,] believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus’s birth on March 28” (Jeffery Sheler, U.S. News & World Report, “In Search of Christmas,” Dec. 23, 1996, p. 58). Any of these are probably possible. The one date that is almost certainly not correct is December 25th. A careful analysis of Scripture leads us to this conclusion. There are two primary reasons:
First, we know that shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:7-8). Shepherds were probably not in the fields during late December. According to Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, Luke’s account “suggests that Jesus may have been born in summer or early fall. Since December is cold and rainy in Judea, it is likely the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks at night” (p. 309). The Gospel says clearly that “shepherds were abiding in the fields”.
The second scriptural reference that argues against a late-December birth is the fact that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4). Wintertime is not a good time to hold a census, even today. It must have been even worse, two thousand years ago. Mary and Joseph would have had to walk the ninety-some miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Maybe they had a donkey; maybe not. In any case, it was cold and travel would have been difficult. Censuses simply were not taken in winter, when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads, where there were roads, in poor condition. Taking a census under such conditions would have been self-defeating.
So: If he must not have been born on December 25th, what do the Gospels tell us about when he was born? Now, that gets interesting. First of all, of course, we have the aforementioned “shepherds abiding in the fields with their blocks” information. When did shepherds do that? The answer is “probably in the Fall”. Agricultural people lived a strictly regimented life. Crops were sown, vines were tended, fruit of all sorts were harvested in accordance with the seasons. Spring and Fall would have been the most likely times to have been sleeping in the fields with the sheep. In addition, we have some information concerning the birth of another fellow, John the Baptist.
We know that John’s mother Elizabeth was in sixth month of her pregnancy when Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:24-36). This being the case, we can determine the approximate time of year Jesus was born if we know when John was born. So: we know that John’s father, Zacharias, was a priest serving in the Jerusalem temple during the course of Abijah (Luke 1:5). Historical calculations indicate this course of service corresponded to June 13-19 in that year ( The Companion Bible, 1974, Appendix 179, p. 200). It was during this time of temple service that Zacharias learned that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a child (Luke 1:8-13). After he completed his service and traveled home, Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:23-24). Assuming John’s conception took place near the end of June, adding nine months brings us to the end of March as the most likely time for John’s birth. Adding another six months (the difference in ages between John and Jesus) brings us to the end of September. Jesus. If we follow the scriptural hints, must have been born in late September, which matches well the agricultural calendar that we discussed earlier.
So, what are we to do with all this calculation? Must we give up our celebrating of Christmas altogether? I think not. What difference does it make, if we’re off by a few months? None, at all. Besides: let’s assume that He really was born around the 28th or 29th of September. What does that tell us? That God didn’t enter this world until the Fall? I beg your pardon! Using those same dates, let’s compute the time when Jesus must have been conceived! Jesus may not have come out of the womb until September, but he was in there, growing, for nine months, before then. So: Let’s subtract nine months from late September and see what we get: Son of a gun! Late December! Maybe we weren’t so far off, at that!
Homily delivered at Christ Chapel on the First Sunday after Christmas, 27 December, 2020
By Rev. Dr. T. Y. Hiter, Vicar
St. John 13:20-26, 31-35
St. John the Evangelist. Today is the day we celebrate his birth, and it is from his writing that we take our lesson this morning. He is a fascinating study! So, who was he?
Well, there’s been a lot of discussion about that over the years; some scholars have argued against the traditional Church belief that John the Evangelist was in fact John, the son of Zebedee; John the Apostle. But some scholars have argued against virtually everything in the Bible. Overwhelmingly, beginning in the First Century, the Church Fathers said that the Apostle John was the author of this Gospel. If you wish to reference their reasoning, look at Polycarp, who knew John personally, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Papius. Perhaps no other book in the Bible has as convincing a list of attributors.
Now John was an educated man. He was a very young man, at the time of the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus, and he lived a very long time, doing some of the most remarkable things, but those things are not what we’re concerned with, today. Today, we’re looking at his Gospel. His story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
When John was quite old, he was sentenced to be martyred in Rome. He was to be boiled in oil, and indeed, he seems to have been boiled, outside the Latin Gate of the City. Evidently the executioners made a mistake though, or else God interfered. After boiling, John is said to have climbed out of the pot much refreshed! Indeed, they say the oil had taken away many of the old-man wrinkles that he had had when they put him in the pot.
In any case, since boiling didn’t work, he was sentenced to exile on a tiny (and nasty) Greek Island called Patmos. While on Patmos, John is believed to have received the visions that he later wrote down as the Book of Revelations, or “The Revelation of St. John the Elder.” From there, he went back to Ephesus, in Asia Minor, where he was serving as Bishop, where died at well over 100 years of age: the youngest Apostle became the oldest, and may have been the only one to die peacefully, in bed.
In the lesson, he is telling a story about Jesus. Indeed the opening words are Jesus’s own: Red Letter words, if your Bible is so made. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.” This is Theology. John is telling us, as he told his own followers, back in the First Century, that God the Father sent God the Son into the world to build the Church, and that God the Son sent Apostles into the world to recruit members. To Baptize them and make them Disciples. So, there is, according to John, a direct link between a believer, a minister, the Apostles, Jesus, and God the Father. You, as a believer in Jesus Christ and his Church, can go into the next room and find hanging on the wall a certificate ordaining me as an Elder. That’s what “Presbyter” means. The man who signed my Ordination was Bishop Glen Hartley. If you contact Bishop Hartley and ask, he can tell you who the Bishops were who Consecrated him to be a Bishop, and in fact, he can tell you who Consecrated them, and before that who consecrated them, right back to the Apostles. That’s what we mean when we say we have valid Apostolic Succession. Our Bishops have Succession through two Apostles: St. John and St. Peter. Some believe we also have it through St. Paul, but that cannon be proven, so we don’t actually claim it. But as Jesus says, “He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.” Jesus ordained John and God ordained Jesus. Jesus told them that when? At the Last Supper, which we celebrate when we do Holy Communion.
When he had finished saying this, he pushed back from the table, apparently having to move the young Apostle, John, himself, we believe, out of the way so he could move. Then he sent Judas Iscariot to betray him. And then, having set in motion the chain of affairs that would lead directly to Golgotha, he addressed the 12 remaining Apostles.
“Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you. A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” “Love one another as I have loved you”. Jesus told them, and they, through nearly 2000 years of History; through almost seventy generations of life and death; of peace and war, of plague, plenty, good times and bad, have passed down to us the commandment that Jesus gave them, that night: “Love one another as I have loved you”.
And, that’s our job to do, today. People know we are Anglicans because we use the Book of Common Prayer in our worship. But they know we are Christians because we love one another. They recognize Pentecostals when they speak in tongues, or dance and do other such things during worship, but they, too, are Christians, and they manifest it (or they do not) by the way they show love for one another. Roman Catholics revere the Bishop of Rome above all others, but their Christianity is measured by their love. Baptists and all sorts of other Calvinists preach and preach and preach, but they are known to be Christians not because of their preaching, but because of their love.
So as we get into this Christmas season, and as the calendar year nears its end, as it always does, we renew our faith by attending to the birth of God in man. In simple trust, we come like shepherds from the field. In dumb wonder we kneel before the baby beside the sheep and oxen of the stalls. Along with the Magi we bring our gifts of deep devotion. Along with Mary and Joseph, we rejoice that He is ours. We join the host of heaven and earth as they sing the angels’ hymn, “O Come let us adore him!” And, as St. John, the Apostle that Jesus loved above all the others, implored us to do, we proclaim to the world our love for him, and for one another. AMEN.
Homily delivered at Christ Chapel on the Second Sunday after Christmas, 3 January, 2021
Rev. Dr. T. Y. Hiter
St. Matthew 2:19
There is so much that we think we know about so much of the Bible, that turns out not to actually be the case, when we really read it. The arrival of the wise men to visit baby Jesus in the stable, for instance: it may have happened the way we picture it and the way it’s depicted in manger scenes, but there’s no evidence for it, and for that matter, Matthew is quite clear that it did not happen that way. We’re told in Luke that the birth was in a stable, but Matthew is careful to use the word “house” for the visit of the Magi. The word Luke uses for the birth is quite correctly “baby”, but Matthew is careful to use “young child”, instead. Herod set out to kill all the children under the age of 2. Why would he do that, unless there was a good chance that Jesus was close to that age? Yet, the picture most of us have in our minds is of Joseph walking to Egypt to avoid Herod’s troops, with Mary riding on the donkey holding a newborn baby. I think we’re more used to the manger scenes and Sunday School book illustrations than we are to the text of the Gospels, themselves.
Today’s lesson is very much in this vein. “But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life.” Excuse me; where was Israel? The kingdom of Israel fell to outside conquerors long before the beginning of the Babylonian Captivity. Now, it’s true that Nazareth would have been in Israel in 500 B.C., but we’re not talking about 500 B.C., we’re talking about, more or less, 3 or 4 B.C. We know Joseph and Mary lived somewhere, before Jesus was born, because we’re told in Luke that they had to travel to Bethlehem for the census, but is there any evidence that they lived in Nazareth? According to the first Chapter of Luke, in the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in Nazareth, and she then went to visit Elizabeth. Oh, well. Matthew tells us in today’s lesson that they left Egypt and were on their way back to Bethlehem or thereabouts: (somewhere in Judaea). Had they moved there just before the birth? If so, why were they living in a stable? Had they moved there after the birth? We just do not know. Anyway, our lesson tells us that they were coming home to someplace in Judea “when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: 23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” That makes it sound like they hadn’t lived in Nazareth before, doesn’t it? They had to go there, Matthew says, so that Jesus would have some connection with the place. Apparently having parents who lived there when you were born wasn’t enough.
So, what’s the truth? I don’t know. All I know is that it all happened, and Luke thought it was important that we know the birth story and Matthew thought it important that we know about the Magi and Egypt and coming home to the hill country of Galilee. I think that’s enough. I think quibbling about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the exact, literal original sequence of events is un-necessary at best, and silly, at worst. What’s important here, aside from the usefulness of Archelaus for dating purposes? That is, we know that Archelaus followed his father Herod to the throne of Judaea, and we also know that Galilee was a part of an entirely different Roman province, Syria. We can use these to help us get closer to the historical facts surrounding Jesus birth. Is that important? Well, no, probably not, but we seem to have a need as human beings to try to pin down this kind of stuff and put a date on it, so useful details like this come in handy.
But, so what? Are we to believe that Matthew went to the trouble of writing this passage, probably on papyrus, at considerable expense and great effort, simply to give us a way to date the events revealed elsewhere in the book? Well, maybe, but it just doesn’t seem right.
On the other hand, are we to take it literally, and learn something of value by accepting that God sometimes communicates with us through dreams, and that we ought to organize our lives in accordance with dreams that we believe to be God-inspired? Well, again, maybe. But again, I don’t think so.
What I believe we ought to take from this morning is that Joseph and Mary trusted God, and that we ought to do so, as well. I don’t think the lesson depends on dreams, though that’s the vehicle that Matthew chose to use to press his point. I don’t think it’s awfully important that Jesus had to live in Nazareth so that he might be called a Nazarene. What I think we ought to take is that they trusted God and did, in fact, organize their lives according to His will.
Joseph had uprooted his little family to go pay his taxes. In the process, Mary gave birth under far less than desirable circumstances, and from there, things seem to have gone downhill rapidly. Three (or some number; the Bible doesn’t tell us the exact number) wandering magicians show up making outlandish predictions about the child, then the King’s soldiers show up in town, murdering all the little children. Joseph escapes by the skin of his teeth and makes a long and dangerous trip to Egypt, lives there for a while, then returns home amid the death and replacement of the madman who ordered all the killing; moves his family to the far north, into yet another foreign country, and tries to get his life settled down as a carpenter. And, we think OUR lives are complicated! Yet, it all worked out, in the end.
Why? Because Joseph (and Mary) trusted in God to take care of them. And, He did. That’s not a bad lesson for us, either! Sometimes we get very exercised about politics, or economics, or wars, foreign and domestic, and illnesses and problems. That’s the nature of human life, and it can very easily overcome us, if we’ll let it. But there’s one way to put it all into perspective: Turn it over to God.
Most of us try to solve our own problems, and very few of us are very good at it. As hard as it is to do, we need to more accurately follow Joseph’s (and Mary’s) example in this lesson. Trust God. It’ll turn out okay.