Friday December 14, 2018

Christmas: Birthday of Son of God or Sun God?

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By Nithin Sridhar

Christmas’ is one of the most widely celebrated festivals among the Christians across the world. It is a time to enjoy and make merry with family. Children also look forward to getting presents from ‘Santa Claus’. More than anything, it is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, who is considered as the Son of God in Christianity.

Yet, a deeper look into the origins of Christmas celebrations as well as its various elements reveals that Christmas has almost nothing to do with Christianity! The celebration and various practices associated with it are all rooted in pre-Christian pagan religions, which were then appropriated, digested, and Christianized as part of the Christianity’s early attempts to establish monopoly over Europe.

Writing about Pagan origins of Christmas practices, George W. Curtis notes: “Christmas looks out at us from the shadow of the groves of the Druids who knew not Christ, and it is dear to those who now renounce the name of Christ. The Christmas log, is but the Saxon Yule-log burning on the English hearth, and the blazing holiday temples of Saturn shine again in the illuminated Christian churches. It is the pagan mistletoe under which the Christian youth kisses the Christian maid. It is the holly of the old Roman Saturnalia which decorates Bracebridge Hall on Christmas Eve. The huge smoking baron of beef, the flowing oceans of ale, are but survivals of the tremendous eating and drinking of the Scandinavian Walhalla. The Christian and anti-Christian feeling blend in the happy season and the Christian observance mingles at every point with the pagan rites. It is not easy to say where the paganism ends and the Christianity begins.”

Thus, various elements of Christmas celebrations, be it the use of Christmas tree, holly, ivy, and mistletoe, or the ceremony of gift giving and merriment, all trace back to Pagan religious practices. But, more interesting is the fact that December 25th was not adopted as the birthday of Jesus Christ till many centuries after his death. In fact, there is no consensus among traditional Christian accounts regarding the date, year, or the place of the birth of Jesus Christ. Hence, we can find at least half a dozen different dates, which have been put forward as the birthday of Jesus Christ, including May 20, April 19, November17, March 28, March 25, and January 6.

On the other hand, strong arguments based on Christian Gospels have been made against the possibility of December 25 being the day of Jesus’s birth. Hence, it is quite clear that December 25 is not the birthday of Jesus Christ- the Christian Son of God. In fact, before the adoption of December 25 as his date of birth, January 6 was widely accepted date among early Christians. So, naturally the question arises: Why did the early Christians change their preference and adopt December 25 for celebrating the birth of Jesus? What was the significance of the day?

The answer to this lies in the Pagan lore of ‘Mithraism’– the religion of the Sun God. The worship of the Sun God, Mithra quite clearly can be traced to Persia and India. In India, the solar deity is one of the Vedic Gods and one of his names is ‘Mitra’. The religion of Mithras appears to have spread from Persia to Europe, where the people began to worship the Sun God as ‘Sol Invictus’ (Unconquered Sun) or as ‘Sol Invictus Mithras’. It is the birth of this ‘Unconquered Sun’ which his devotees began to celebrate on December 25- the day of Winter Solstice. The celebration is further traced back to the Roman Emperor Aurelian, who officially instituted the festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the birthday of Unconquered Sun) to be celebrated on December 25 in 274 CE. This winter solstice occasion was further adopted by the Romans as the festival of Saturn called ‘Saturnalia’.

Raymond Kilduff in ‘The Christian Tradition: The Birthday of the Sun’ writes: “The present custom of celebrating the Nativity on December 25th was not instituted by the Church until 353 or 354. December 25th coincided with both the birth date of Mithra (the Persian god of light and truth) and the beginning of the winter solstice. So the birthday of the Son of God came to be celebrated on the Birthday of the Sun.

It must be noted here that it was the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 313 AD and the subsequent Roman patronage of Christianity that actually led to the appropriation of Mithra’s birthday into the birthday of Jesus Christ.

Thus, O M Spencer in ‘Christmas Throughout Christendom’ writes: “When, however, Constantine proclaimed the Christian faith as the predominating religion of the Roman empire, the Christian Church, relieved from persecution throughout both Orient and Occident, began to solemnize, under the aegis of imperial authority, Christmas as the birthday of Christ. One prominent feature, however, of Constantine’s political propaganda of Christianity was the adoption under Christian forms, not only of pagan rites and ceremonies, but also of pagan festivals. In order to reconcile heathen converts to the new faith, these relics of paganism, like antique columns transferred from ancient temples to adorn Christian churches, were freely incorporated into the Christian ceremonial. Thus it was that Christmas, though formerly observed on the 6th of January, was transferred to the 25th of December, the time of the Roman Saturnalia, and became invested with much of the paraphernalia of the heathen festival.

In other words, Christianity digested various religious symbols and practices of Pagan religions present in Europe and in the process gave them new Christian meanings, thus ultimately causing the death of those Pagan religions. And ‘Christmas’ serves as the best example of this Christian process of ‘inculturation’ by which it uprooted numerous Pagan cultures and successfully evangelized Pagan people across the world. This inculturation strategy continues to be adopted by the Church even today especially in countries like India.

The usage of inculturation by Christianity against Mithraism is further reinforced by the presence of many similarities between Christianity and Mithraism. The birth of Mithra from a virgin mother, Mithra’s association with shepherds, Mithra having 12 disciples and performing miracles, his association with Lion and Lamb and his connection to Sunday, all became included into the life story of Jesus Christ. More importantly, Jesus is associated with Light similar to Mithra, who is the Lord of Light. These similarities clearly point towards the digestion of Mithratic symbols and practices into Christianity, which ultimately resulted in the spread of Christianity and the death of Mithraism. Thus, through inculturation, the original festival of the Sun God was transformed into Christmas-the festival of the Son of God.

(Photo: redeeminggod.com)

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Mary Magdalene’s Image Gets New Look in Modern Age

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Mary Magdalene
A picture of a mosaic of Mary Magdalene and Jesus at the Magdala center, on the Sea of Galilee in Migdal, March 27, 2018. VOA

If there’s a feminist figure from the Bible for the #MeToo era, it could very well be Mary Magdalene.

The major character in the life of Jesus was long maligned in the West and portrayed as a reformed former prostitute. But scholars have adopted a different approach more recently, viewing her as a strong, independent woman who supported Jesus financially and spiritually.

The New Testament tells how Jesus cast demons out of her. She then accompanied Jesus in his ministry around the Galilee, before witnessing his crucifixion, burial and resurrection in Jerusalem, which is being commemorated by Christians this week and next. The Roman Catholic Church and Western Christian churches observe Easter on Sunday, Eastern Orthodox Christians a week later.

Pope Francis took the biggest step yet to rehabilitate Mary Magdalene’s image by declaring a major feast day in her honor, June 22. His 2016 decree put the woman who first proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection on par with the liturgical celebrations of the male apostles.

ALSO READ: Exploring Jesus Christ’s journey in India before he became missionary-martyr of Sanatana Dharma in the West 

mary magdalene
“By doing this, he established the absolute equality of Mary Magdalene to the apostles, something that has never been done before and is also a point of no return” for women in the church, said Lucetta Scarrafia, editor of the Vatican-published Women Church World monthly magazine. Pixabay

For centuries, Western Christianity depicted Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute, a narrative that began in the sixth century. Pope Gregory the Great conflated Magdalene with an anonymous sinful woman mentioned in the chapter before she’s introduced in the Gospel of Luke.

Only in 1969 did the Catholic Church roll back centuries of labeling Mary Magdalene as such, stating she was distinct from the sinful woman mentioned in Luke. Eastern Orthodox Christians never depicted her as a prostitute.

Mary Magdalene was from a thriving fishing village on the Sea of Galilee named Magdala, which has been excavated extensively by archaeologists in recent decades.

The site is home to the oldest known synagogue in the Galilee, where a stone bearing the likeness of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was found, as well as a marketplace, ritual baths and fishing harbor. Marcela Zapata-Meza, the lead archaeologist at the site, has called it “the Israeli Pompeii.”

Modern scholars have adopted a different understanding of Mary Magdalene, and regard her as one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples, who stood by him to the end while his most devoted apostles did not.

ALSO READ: Jesus as Yogi: The art of deception and conversion by Christian missionaries in India

mary magdalene
Nonetheless, the image of Mary Magdalene as a licentious, sexualized woman has persisted in Western culture, including in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Da Vinci Code.” Pixabay

“Historical tradition says she was a prostitute from Magdala,” said Jennifer Ristine, director of the Magdalena Institute at Magdala. “Reanalyzing that reputation that she had we can see she was probably a woman of greater social status, higher social status, a woman of wealth who accompanied Jesus as we see in Luke 8:2, helping Jesus and his disciples with her own resources.”

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister, said Mary Magdalene’s reputation was sullied by her depiction in art over the centuries.

“Art history made her become a prostitute, which is something that is not present in the Gospels,” he said, adding that she also has been portrayed as Jesus’ wife.

“It is important to find the real face of Mary Magdalene, who is a woman who represents the importance of the female aspect on the side of Christ,” he told The Associated Press at the Vatican.

The Gospel of Mary, an early Christian text, depicted her as a visionary who received secret revelations and knowledge from Jesus.

ALSO READ: Christmas: Birthday of Son of God or Sun God?

Claire Pfann, academic dean at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, said Mary Magdalene must be seen for what she was: “An independent woman who has discretionary time and wealth from the city of Magdala, not identified by a father or a husband, whose life was dramatically restored, healed, changed by her encounter with this Jewish itinerant teacher and healer, Jesus of Nazareth.”

“It takes a long time for serious scholarship to trickle down to the popular level,” she added.

A new film on the life of Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara in the title role, Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter the Apostle, recasts her in that mold.

The film has been released in Europe and Australia. A release date for the United States has not been set, following the collapse of its original distributor, the Weinstein Co., after a series of sexual harassment and assault claims against founder Harvey Weinstein. The rash of allegations made against Weinstein spawned the global #MeToo movement.

Ristine said Mary Magdalene plays a critical role in the New Testament and carries an “essential pivotal message of Christianity.”

“Why is a woman there, giving testimony to that in a culture where woman are just not paid attention to, or not placed as witnesses?” Ristine asked. “Well, this speaks very strongly to women today, that the power of their witness, the power of their testimony to speak up for a truth, can have effects that ripple down through the centuries.” VOA