“That first Christmas evening”

I wish you all a very happy Christmas. Christ is born!

I can’t tell you how many times, over the last several weeks—from people who think that “the Christmas season” runs from the First Sunday of Advent or even earlier through today, instead of from today until Epiphany—and in previous years I’ve heard the phrase “that first Christmas morning” or “that first Christmas morn.” I get the sense that the popular conception of the story is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the early morning on the local equivalent of December 25.

Of the three parts of that statement, one is certainly true: Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. But the other two are more dubious.

I don’t want to get into the question of the date of “the first Christmas” here; because our celebration is, essentially, the “Official Birthday” of the True King, December 25 is at least arguably as suitable a day as any. And the arguments over this question are old and well-rehearsed ones, so I doubt I could bring any new insight to the debate.

But the time of day is something that I haven’t seen any discussion of. So it provides something to look for as we open our Bibles to read the story, as I assume we all will today.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

The one piece of direct evidence for what time of day Jesus was born comes from verses 8 and 11: “And there were shepherds … keeping watch over their flocks at night,” to whom the angel said, “… Today in the town of David a Savior has been born …” Remember that the Jewish day began and ended at sundown. So a morning birth would, by the time of the night shift, be “born yesterday,” not “born today,” much like a child born at eleven o’clock at night is “born yesterday” two hours later by modern reckoning.

There’s also the indirect evidence of past eras’ hymnody, and phrasing more generally. The carol “O little town of Bethlehem” is the one example that leaps readily to mind:

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

And, of course, “O holy night.”

(The seventeenth-century carol “A virgin unspotted,” and the earlier carol “A virgin most pure” on which it is based, has the phrase “Jesus … was born on this tide” in their refrain, not “was born on this night” as I first thought when it came up on the radio yesterday morning.)

One last piece of logic. One of the reasons that December 25 was chosen as the date to celebrate the Incarnation, rather than a date in March (or one other candidate, according to the book I read, which I can’t recall), was that at the time it was believed that the lives of particularly great men would begin and end on the same day, and so be an exact number of years long. For most people this meant they died on their birthday, but Church leaders reasoned that Jesus’ life and influence began with his conception (as shown by Mary’s visit to Elizabeth after the Annunciation), and so placed his birthday nine months after (one of the dates of) Good Friday. If they thought about time of day, the fact that Jesus died at “the ninth hour” would suggest conception and birth at the same time of day.

I find the argument from Scripture compelling, but not inarguable; the arguments from hymnody and the traditions of the Church are less compelling, but still add some weight. But in any case, it is certainly not an undoubted fact that “Jesus was born that first Christmas morn.”

However, neither the day nor the hour is of central importance; what is is that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

Christ is born! Let us glorify him!

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