The Birth of Christ in the Early Church

Someone asked me about Christmas and the early church. So I did a little bit of reading and came across a few interesting passages from some of the church Fathers.

Clement (A.D. c.30-c.100) speaks of how Jesus ‘did not come with pomp or pride or arrogance…but in a lowly condition.’ First Epistle, XVI

Ignatius (A.D. c.30-c.107) writes how Jesus ‘was conceived in the womb of Mary’ and how ‘the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world’. Epistle to the Ephesians, XIX

Justin Martyr (A.D. c.110-c.165) is defending the Christian faith and highlights how the birth of Jesus is foretold in Isaiah and that Jesus would be ‘born of a virgin’ in order that ‘there might be no unbelief, but faith because of their prediction.’ He goes on to affirm how Jesus was born in Bethlehem but then ‘escaped the notice of other men until he grew to man’s estate…’ First Apology, 33-35

Justin also speaks about Jesus being born in a ‘cave near the village’ of Bethlehem. The Magi later came to worship Christ, and in doing so ‘revolted from that dominion which held them captive’.

Irenaeus (A.D. c.130-c.202) spends a fair amount of time on the birth of Christ seeking to prove that Jesus actually took on flesh and was born in the flesh as Christ, King and Lord. Irenaeus is arguing against Gnostics who believed that at the baptism of Jesus, Christ ‘descended upon Jesus’. Against Heresies, III.9-10

Tertullian (A.D. c.155-c.230) refutes Marcion using the nativity of Christ to argue for ‘the Word becoming flesh’. For Tertullian the nativity is a vital element to the Christian hope, so much so that his view of Marcion, in denying that Jesus really came in the flesh, is that he should ‘cease to live’! Against Marcion, V

Origen (A.D. 185-235) argues that there were ‘those who busied themselves with overthrowing the belief that the place of His birth had been the subject of prophecy from the beginning…acting in a similar manner to those individuals who won over those soldiers of the guard stationed around the tomb who had seen him arise form the dead…’ For Origen the nativity story is ‘abundantly clear’, with Jesus in ‘the cave where he was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes.’

Interestingly he goes on to say,

‘And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians.’ Against Celsus, I.LI

Liturgy from the 3rd Century
‘Thou who art the only-begotten Son and Word of God, immortal; who did submit for our salvation to become flesh of the (holy God-mother) and ever virgin Mary…’ Liturgy of James

Arnobius (died c. 330 A.D.) wrote sarcastically about the ‘heathen’ who celebrated the births of the various gods. Against the Heathen, VII.32

Gregory of Nazianzus (c.329-390 A.D.)
‘Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth, be exalted….This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man…Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.’ A Christmas Sermon, 380 A.D.

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395)
‘Now, the theme of the present Feast is the mystery of the true Tabernacle. For on this day did He Who vested Himself with humanity for our sake pitch His human tabernacle; on this day our tabernacles, which had disintegrated through death, are reconstituted by Him Who constructed our habitation from the very beginning. Let us utter the words of the Psalm, joining in chorus with the loud-voiced David: “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” How does He come? He crosses over into human life, not by boat or by chariot, but through the incorruption of a Virgin. This is our God, this is our Lord.’ Homily on the Nativity of Christ, c. 380 A.D.

By the mid-fourth century there were 111 saints who were venerated with feasts to remember them. At that time there were only three Church holidays; Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany. Whilst Easter and Pentecost were movable according to the moon, Epiphany always fell on January 6th to remember Christ’s baptism. The feast of the Ascension became popular in the latter half of the fourth century.1386875034By the beginning of the third century Christian martyrs had been remembered on a yearly basis on the ‘day of their birth into heaven’ as Augustine called it, or their “birth-day” as the Epistle of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. 160 A.D) describes it. So the Christian calendar revolved around the martyrs, which perhaps is not surprising considering early persecution and the growth of the Church in spite of persecution (‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’, Tertullian).

It is not clear when Christmas began to be celebrated on 25th December, but it was a gradual thing that came from Rome. What is clear is that holidays celebrating the life of Jesus were sparse in the Church calendar.

Going on the writings of the Church Fathers it is clear that Jesus was proclaimed boldly and passionately (and aggressively at times!), refuting arguments that diminished Him in any way. Quite simply, the Church were all about Jesus as Lord. Perhaps then the celebration and feasts of the martyrs rather than Christ was a reflection on how they honoured those who boldly proclaimed Christ even to death, and so Christ was continually being worshiped and celebrated all year round and so there was little need for feasts and holidays specifically for Him…

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