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Tag Archives: epiphany

A Brief History of Advent

Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth

Advent is a little late on the scene. The Council of Saragossa (Spain, 380AD) is the first reference to a preparatory period before celebrating the Incarnation. Fasting and daily church going was required from December 17 until Epiphany (Theophany, January 6th – the celebration of the Incarnation in those days in that and other regions).

Then, mimicking the preparation before Easter, the Synod of Mac (France, 581) decreed that from November 11 (Feast of St. Martin) until December 24 fasting be three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) [often called “St Martin’s Lent”).

Rome, ever conservative, did not introduce an Advent preparatory period until the sixth century. It was less penitential than the Lenten preparation.

The Gelasian Sacramentary (often mentioned on this site), was the first to provide Advent liturgies for five Sundays (the origin of the “Stir Up” Sunday) [Syrian Jacobites contine a five Sunday preparation period]. Pope Gregory I (d. 604) added prayers, antiphons, readings, and responses, and Pope Gregory VII (d. 1095) reduced the number of Sundays in Advent to four (followed by Western Christians, Copts, and Nestorians). Starting the Church Year on the first Sunday of Advent was a ninth century development.

The Council of Constantinople (1166) decreed that a fast begin on November 15 and last until December 24 inclusive – clearly paralleling the forty days of Lent. That Eastern preparation is often referred to as “Phillip’s Fast” because it begins on the day after the feast of St. Phillip.

The origin of the Advent Wreath seems to be sixteenth century German Lutherans. Increasing baroque and complicating tendencies means that some people are now naming the individual candles – and the cluttering of liturgy continues – often these late accretions become the primary focus, further bedded in by the obsession with “themes”.

Holding penitence and joyfulness in tension is a foundation of this season. There is a similar tension between preparing for the celebration of Christ’s birth (itself a relatively late arrival on the liturgical scene) and preparing for the parousia.

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Image source: He, Qi. The Visitation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46125


Are The Gospels True?

Christmas in box

Friend and fellow Kiwi blogger, Peter Carrell, blogged recently about the historicity of the Gospel birth narratives (in response to a comment of mine).

I hope I am fair in my summary of his post:

“The invention hypothesis” would have Matthew expanding Mark’s gospel from the perspective of Joseph, while Luke does so from the perspective of Mary.

Put like that, why would we have any regard at all for either Matthew or Luke’s accounts of the birth of Jesus as historical narratives? Why not treat them as sheer fiction relative to the actual but unknown historical facts of Jesus’ birth and as narratival theology on a par with the explicitly theological prologue of John’s Gospel? And, of course, if we head towards the conclusion that the narratives are not historical, why not cast doubt on the miraculous conception of Jesus?

Peter goes on to observe that “if the accounts cannot be proven to be historical, neither can they be proven to be unhistorical.” He points out that the birth narratives are not in Q (“the common source for non-Markan material in Matthew and Luke”) but there are still points in common between Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives: “Jesus’ mother is Mary, his step-father is Joseph. His conception is miraculous. His birth is in Bethlehem. His upbringing is in Nazareth.” He argues that the uniqueness of Jesus may have unique events around his birth, and that there is nothing intrinsically impossible in the stories.

He concludes “there are… significant reasons for not moving …to determining that we “know” there is little or no history involved in the narratives. …There is no other history available to us.”

A better approach?

Peter then (humbly) points to “a much better post …by Ian Paul”. I think Peter is wrong. I think Peter’s is by far the better approach.

Ian Paul argues that he cannot see any changes in style (between history and unhistorical), that a midrash approach to the Hebrew Bible would not lead to the texts we have, and that (for example) the magi, elsewhere, do not get positive press and so would not have been at hand for Matthew’s inventing their place in his story. To this last point I would remind readers that we may be reading the text through pretty-Christmas-cards-and-children’s-nativity-plays lenses. Matthew may not be having the magi giving allegorical presents at all, this may be the magi giving up their old ways and false spirituality with a sign of handing over the tools of their trade to the infant messiah.

Most importantly, here is Ian Paul’s conclusion that needs strong challenging:

if God in Jesus did not outwit Herod, on what grounds might we think he can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’? More fundamentally, Matthew and his first readers appeared to believe that the claims about Jesus were ‘parabolically true’ because these things actually happened. If none of them did, what grounds do we now have? Even if the events we read about are heavily interpreted, there is an irreducible facticity in testimony; if this has gone, we ought to question the value of the testimony itself.

Let’s deal with his first question first: the logic that because we say pious things in sermons (“Jesus outwits the Herods of this world”) therefore it actually, historically happened, patently does not follow.

The idea that everything in the gospels is historically accurate, and that if we question the historicity of one part we pull at a thread which means the whole of our weaving completely unravels and we are left with nothing, is false. It is the weak (read ‘false’) argument used by so many atheists and discreditors of Christianity.

Only recently, in a perfectly reasonable online conversation, an anti-theist troll thought to reject my points merely because I am a theist. He tried to shift the conversation by listing off a (clearly regularly used copy-and-paste-of-his) seeming contradictions in the Bible as if that would destroy my faith! I didn’t respond, but, as a daily studier of the Bible, I would be able to produce a much longer list than his.

On the other hand, I recently came across a Christian arguing that God put contradictions in the Bible to weed out the atheists!

All the Bible is True. Some of it happened.

No reputable historian would say that there is no history beneath Matthew’s gospel. Ian Paul is arguing that there are only two options: either all of the gospel of Matthew is historically accurate, or none of it is.

I think Peter’s conclusion that we cannot, with the information we have, argue Matthew’s infancy narrative lacks historical basis, is a reasonable conclusion. Ian Paul’s is not.

I would see the infancy narratives as overtures for the greater work of art to follow. Many of Matthew’s themes are set up there – Jesus the new Moses (coming out of Egypt); Joseph the new Joseph (his father is Jacob, dreams, etc); the message for all nations (prefigured in the Magi); etc.

Some of the discussions assume the author of the text of Matthew’s Gospel, as we now have it, is the eyewitness, Matthew the apostle. Although the apostle may undergird certain layers of the final text, I hold to the final document expanding Mark, and so cannot follow such an authorship position.

We are dealing with ancient texts with a long history of development, with genres, approaches, and assumptions in which they were agile and we now struggle with. Texts, even today, have a variety of ways of conveying truth – metaphor, poetry, allegory, hyperbole, and irony can convey truth in a way that a direct, scientific flat description would completely fail to sustain.

We do not have to go down the minimalist route, using tools that cut down to be historical only to that of which we can be absolutely certain. But we need to be honest that some of the material we cannot be certain whether this is history as it is presented, or something else – where the message conveyed outweighs the historicity.

Yes, the Gospels are absolutely true, and much of them actually happened.


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Pagan Origin of Christmas?

Winter Solstice

Around Christmas time there’s always the old saw that Christmas is essentially a pagan celebration. It’s usually said by a Christmas Grinch, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or someone with a particular agenda. The truth, possibly surprisingly, may be the other way around. The Puritan-dominated Parliament of England in 1644 banned all Christmas activities as being… Continue Reading


Proclamation of Easter on Epiphany 2016

deacon proclaims

We can once again this year make use of the ancient tradition of announcing the date of Easter on the Feast of the Epiphany. In the past, when calendars were not common, it clearly had functional value to give the date and feasts dependant on the date of Easter Day. It still has value as… Continue Reading


New Zealand Lectionary 2016

New Zealand Lectionary 2016

Available now online is New Zealand’s Lectionary Te Maramataka 2016 PDF (1.54 MB – click link to download). [Note – page numbers of the printed booklet may differ from the online version referred to here.] This is just a splash of comments from a quick first glance. There is much in a publication such as… Continue Reading


Lectionary Defies General Synod Wish

Advent 3 2015

This is one of those blogposts (it’s go-slow, summer-holiday time here down under) that is written specially for those who think that the primary focus of those interested in liturgy is when to use “of”, or “in”, or “after”; how to hold your fingers and hands at particular points; and whether to light Advent wreath… Continue Reading


Epiphany 2015

Epiphany Jesus Mafa

Let us pray (in silence)      [that we may manifest God’s love for all] Pause God, [or God of mystery] by the leading of a star, on this day you revealed your only begotten one to the gentiles, lead us, who have already come to know you by faith, all the way to the… Continue Reading