A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 22, 2015
Luke 22:7-23 GNT
Is there any connection between Christian holidays and the natural order of the world? Between the cycles of Nature and the Christian liturgical year? Such is the question I have been mulling lately and felt moved to pose this morning. Now, more than any other time of the year, just seems like a good time to think about it.
We are now in the fifth week of the season of Lent, that period of soul-searching, spiritual discipline, study, and for some fasting, that looks forward to the great Christian celebration of Easter. Have you ever thought about where the name “Lent” comes from? From way back, I had in mind that the word “Lent” is a shortened derivative of the Old English word “lencten,” a word associated with the spring time of the year when the days begin to lengthen. So I checked the big Webster’s Dictionary in the church library, which confirmed what I remembered. The word “Lent” is a derivative of the Old English word “lencten,” and the Middle English word “lente,” meaning spring. So, right off the bat, the Christian season of Lent is named after the natural season of the year—spring—when the days begin to lengthen and grow warmer.
And then there is passion or Holy Week. The passage chosen from Luke is just one sampling from the gospels that recount the story of Jesus’ last Passover Supper with his disciples before his betrayal, trial, and death on the cross. So our Christian Maundy Thursday and Good Friday observances have as their basis and origin the Jewish festival of Passover. But how was—and is—the time of the Jewish festival of Passover determined from year to year? Well, we find that Jewish holy days are based on a lunar calendar which begins in the fall of the year. So Jewish Passover is held at the full moon, on the 15th day of the Jewish month Nisan (the seventh month of the Jewish year). From the beginning, the crucifixion of Jesus has been associated with the Jewish Passover, and often Passover and Good Friday coincide or fall very close together, but not always. And if they do so, it is only because of the way astronomical occurrences line up.
We read in the Old Testament that the ancient Hebrews had any number of festivals that were held during particular times of the lunar year. There are several references in the Old Testament, especially, to the “new moon” and special observances that were held on “new moon” days. Evidently, the idea carried over to some of the early Christians, as the writer of the New Testament book of Colossians felt moved to say, “Don’t let anyone judge you about eating or drinking or about a festival, a new moon observance, or Sabbaths” (Colossians 2:16 CEB).
Which brings us to Easter. As hinted earlier, sometimes Easter falls near the end of the Jewish Passover, but not always. Why is that so? In the early centuries of the Church, there was a desire to always celebrate Easter on a Sunday (the day of the week tradition says Jesus arose from the dead), whereas the beginning of Passover can fall on any day of the week, depending upon the phases of the moon. So at the Council of Nicea of 325 CE, it was decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday following the full moon that comes on or after the vernal equinox. Hence, the Christian celebration of Easter is both a solar-based (spring equinox) and lunar-based (first full moon) holy day.
The decision as to when to celebrate Christmas is a slightly different story. Of course, no one really knows when Jesus was born, but it is very unlikely that Jesus was born in December, and many think Jesus’ birth was really in the spring of the year. After all, there was no birth certificate. The mention in Luke’s Christmas story of shepherds watching their flocks in the fields, many think, suggests the spring lambing season. So why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25? There are a number of possibilities, some more confusing to me than enlightening.
One explanation for celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 has to do with an earlier form of a Roman (lunar) calendar. In the ancient Roman lunar calendar, December 25 would have been March 25.
But the most popular explanation for the decision to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 is it was set to coincide with pagan observances that were already being celebrated—the late December Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Roman feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) on December 25, and so on. One idea was that if the formerly pagan peoples were already celebrating these pagan holidays around the time of the winter solstice, they could replace the pagan deities with Christ, and eventually the day would transition from a pagan to a Christian holiday. Or to put it another way, there would be a transition from celebrating the birth of the sun (s-u-n) at the time of the winter solstice to the celebration of the birth of the son (s-o-n) of God, who was seen as “the Light of the world.”
So, it appears that the days chosen to celebrate the two most important Christian holy days—Easter and Christmas—do have connections to the natural orders of the universe, the winter and spring solstices and phases of the moon, possibly a much greater connection than any of us might have ever imagined.
Should this be a problem for Christians that the holiest of Christian holidays were and are determined by the position of the sun and phases of the moon? For those who have an extreme aversion to anything smacking of “pagan,” it may very well be a problem. But before we get all up in arms, let us not forget that many of our Christmas and Easter customs were originally pagan in origin that were adopted and “baptized” by Christians and given new meanings. The Easter egg was an ancient pagan symbol celebrating new life and spring. The egg as a symbol was adopted and given new meaning. Just as chicks break forth from the egg shell to new life, Jesus broke forth from the tomb to new life. Bunnies have their origin in the old pagan festival of Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility from whom the word “Easter” came, whose symbol was the rabbit or hare.
And when it comes to Christmas customs, Christmas evergreens, mistletoe, and the Yule log were customs celebrated by the pagans of old. Such were adopted by Christians along the way and given new meanings and symbolisms.
The adoption of pagan practices and symbols is nothing new. Many of the practices of the ancient Hebrews (such as slaughtering of rams to atone for sin or seek the favor of the gods) were adopted from the Canaanite tribes and, as my Old Testament professor Virgil Todd always said, were baptized or immersed into the Jewish faith. It has always been that way, as Judaism and Christianity have assimilated cultural practices and customs and “made them holy” by giving them new contextual meanings.
But whether one is adverse to or comfortable with such assimilation depends in large measure upon how we look at things. To locate Christian holy days according to the position of the sun or the phases of the moon can also be a way of saying that maybe there is something Sacred—something Holy, something of God—in the natural order of the world and the changing of the seasons. If you look at it from that perspective, then Christmas and Easter can in a manner of speaking be seen as being doubly-holy, in that they speak of the birth and death of Jesus—God’s revelation to the world—but also because their celebration is tied to the solstices of the sun and the phases of the moon created and blessed by the God of Genesis in the beginning.
So, I personally have no problem at all with the celebration of Jesus’ passion, Easter, and Christmas being tied to the movement of the Earth in relation to the sun and the phases of the moon, or the fact that some Easter and Christmas customs were adopted from pagan or Earth-based religions and blessed and given new meaning. From my perspective, it all is holy. For doesn’t the opening page of the Bible say that after creation God looked at the Earth and its vegetation and the sun and the moon, and “God saw that it was [all very] good”? Amen.