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Church History Forum: birth date of christ

by Catherine Frakas 03 Jan 2002

birth date of christ QUESTION from Joe March 30, 2001 Why does the Church, the catechism approved by the American Bishops, not explain to catholics that the true birth date of Jesus is not known, that Dec. 25 is only an estimation that was picked in the 3rd century? According to the Catholic Encyclopedica, Jesus was thought (by Catholic theologians)to have born in the month of March. The date of celbration of the nativity was changed from March to December for several reasons, one of which was that the Blessed Virgin conceived prior to being married, that if this was known during her time, she would have been stoned to death. It appears deceiving for catechisms and the general teaching of the Church not to explain that the date of December 25 for the birth of Christ was an arbitrarily selected date, not the true date. I know that some may say that the true date does not matter but to some it may and the true in its purest form should be expected from the Church.
All of this should be taken in the context that the Church does not maintain that December 25 is the true date (as the Catholic Encyclopedia and other Catholic reference books ) readily state that the December 25 date is not the actual date of the nativity. But for the general populance of practicing Catholics, the Church does not explain this. Why?
thank you
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on April 7, 2001eŒe¦b Dear Joe,
The function of the Catholic Catechism is to not to give the why and wherefore of every Catholic small-t tradition. The purpose of the catechism. Paragraph 11 of the Catechism states This catechism aims ar presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council, and the whole of the Church's Tradition. The teachings of the Church have to do with faith and morals, not traditions.
The Catechism is not the only source of information for Catholics. Just because something you want to know is not in a catechism or in the encyclicals, it doesn't mean the Church is trying to lie to the faithful. I hope you're not suggesting that.
I've known about Christmas not being the real birthday of Christ since grade 2, and I was told by a priest who was giving a talk to our class. That's probably the case with most Catholics: they find out through reading Catholic materials or by someone telling them. I have yet to meet a Catholic who thinks that December 25 is Christ's real birthday.
If Catholics don't treat this as a big secret, then it's not. It's common knowledge. You don't need an encyclical to explain common knowledge. I think you're assuming that almost no one knows this, which I don't think is true.
You also write that the truth in its purest form should be expected from the Church. Absolutely right. The Church does not know exactly when Jesus was born. Some people say March, others say May or July. The Church does not state that December 25th is the birth date of Christ. December 25th is the date the Church decides to *celebrate* the nativity of Christ. That's not the same thing. I'll give you an example.
My cousin was born in December near Christmas time, and as a child, she could never have a birthday party because there was always too much snow around that time, and everyone was busy with Christmas.. One year she decided to have her birthday in the summer so that she could have a party and celebrate with her friends. Everyone knew that her birthday was in December, but that she was having a party in the summer because it was more appropriate.
The Church is like my cousin: she's picking an appropriate date to celebrate the birth of Christ, all while knowing that it isn't his real birth date. Nowhere is it written that you have to celebrate a birthday on the day you were born. In some Asian cultures, everyone's birthday falls on January 1st. Does that make them dishonest? No. They know their own birthdates; it's just that they pick that date for everyone to legally increase their age by one.
The reason why December 25 was chosen as the Feast of the Nativity was so that it could correspond to the pagan holidays celebrated at the same time. That does not make it a pagan holiday, no more than celebrating Kwanzaa makes it a Christian holiday. It made sense to draw people's attention away from pagan festivals where there was immortality and celebrate a Christian feast. Since Christ is the light of the world, and the Winter Solstice occurs around the same time, the symbolism of the season is appropriate.
Thank you for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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