“That first Christmas evening”

I wish a merry Christmas and blessed Christmas season to all my readers.

It is common, in some circles in which I move, to say that Jesus was born “that first Christmas morning” or even “that first Christmas morn.” But I, being curious and something of a quibbler by nature, have at times wondered: what time of day was the Christ Child born? Is the idea that he was born in the morning “possible, but in this life we’ll never know,” like the popular notion that there were exactly three Magi (or in fact that he was born on what is now December 25), or “unlikely,” like Rossetti’s charming, picturesque, theologically on-point, but in-details-dubious poem “In the Bleak Midwinter”?

Unlike the Resurrection, which Jesus told his disciples would be “on the third day” and which the women discovered “early in the morning,” Scripture doesn’t tell us when Jesus was born, beyond the details that would have been enough for any of his contemporaries:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

But later on in Luke’s account, there are a few details that are suggestive.

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night … And the angel said to them, “… [T]o you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

I suspect that the angel waited some time after Jesus’ birth before appearing to the shepherds, so that Mary could recover some of her strength from the ordeal of birth before the shepherds arrived even when they “went with haste” as soon as the angels left. But I’m inclined to doubt it was hours and hours and hours, as it would be had he been born “that first Christmas morning.”

But there’s one subtle implication of this brief passage that carries me beyond mere suspicion and imagination. A “day,” as Jews of that time conceived it, ran from sundown to sundown. (A notion that goes back to Genesis, which identifies each day of the Creation Week with the formula “And there was evening, and there was morning,” and survives in the religious calendar of modern Judaism to this day.) So it seems likely to me that when the angel said “born this day,” the shepherds understood him to mean “born since sundown.”

Not that it matters precisely when Jesus was born of Mary.

Christ is born! Glorify him!

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