Sunday, December 23, 2012

Was Jesus born at night?

In western tradition it has been common to depict the birth of our Lord Jesus as occurring during the night. Film and art have reinforced this image so many times that we hardly give it much thought. But was Jesus really born at night? Is there any way to know for sure? This is a question of merely curious interest, perhaps not worth the thought I have expended on it, but - hey, it's Christmas.

In my experience, kids are more likely to be born at night - all four of my children were born between the hours of midnight and 6:00am, which is quite inconvenient but at least I have come to expect it.

Of course, my experience isn't universal and I do admit the existence of people who are not born at night. Where does the tradition that Jesus was born at night come from?

Partially I think this might be related to the tendency in art and film to conflate the birth of Christ with the finding of the Child by the Wise Men. The Wise Men are usually depicted following a star shining over Bethlehem (obviously at night) and it is wrongly presumed that the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem on the very night of Christ's birth. Of course, the Wise Men arrived considerably later than the actual birth date, as evidenced by Herod's command slay all the children two years and younger, "according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men" (Matt. 2:16).

We could also look at the appearance of the angels to the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke, which occurred at night: "And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). The shepherds are accosted by the angels after the birth of Christ had already taken place, and they are sent to Bethlehem to find the babe. Unlike the case with the Wise Men, this must have occurred relatively soon after the birth, for the shepherds were told that they would find the baby "wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (v. 12). Unless Mary and Joseph stayed in the manger for several days or weeks, we can presume this visit happened within a day or two of the birth.

Furthermore, on the night the angels appear to the shepherds, the angel says to them that "for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (v. 11). And we know from the context of the angels worlds that the birth had already happened when the angels appeared to the shepherds. Therefore, the question is, how long after the birth did the angel appear and say that "this day" the Christ had been born? If we can presume Mary and Joseph were still going to be awake when the shepherds came that evening, then the salutation to the shepherds probably happened right at dusk, placing the birth somewhat earlier. But how much earlier?

There is of course no way to be sure from the text. Jesus may have been born at 6:00am, or noon, or 3:00pm, or even 6:00pm and the angel's greeting of a Savior born "this day" would most likely still be applicable. The angelic greeting to the shepherds could have happened several hours after the birth or perhaps almost concomitantly with it. There is no certainty here.

And yet artistic tradition insists it was at night. When you really dig into the Tradition here, you find that the depictions of Christ's birth at night do not come from conclusions drawn from the Gospels, as we would imagine. Rather, the few writings I have found that do reference the birth at night draw upon a text from the Book of Wisdom for their justification:

"While gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed" (Wis. 18:14-15)

The night being "half gone" has traditionally been understood to be midnight. And at midnight, the Word of God is presented as "leaping" from heaven to earth. The Fathers and Medievals loved this image of God's Word "leaping" to earth in the middle of the night and applied this passage to the birth of Christ in the middle of the night. This verse is the inspiration of the famous hymn (one of my favorites), Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming:

Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah 'twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God's love aright, she bore to us a Savior,
When half spent was the night.


The application is typological, not prophetic; the verse in context refers to the Angel of Death leaping down to Egypt on the night of the Passover to execute judgment on the firstborn of Egypt; hence the reference to the "land that was doomed." It is somewhat odd that a verse about the Angel of Death should be applied to the birth of Christ - especially more so since this sort of application isn't even theologically precise; if we were to pinpoint a moment when the Word of God "leapt from heaven" to earth, it would not be at Christ's birth, but at the moment of the Incarnation. Still, we are dealing here with a tradition that is artistic, not doctrinal, and the connection between the "Word of God" mentioned in Wisdom and Christ as the Word was too much for Catholic artists to pass up.

We should also note the traditional celebration of Mass Christmas Eve so that the consecration occurs at midnight, at the moment when the Word was believed to have "leapt" from heaven.

This is not the only case of a typological reading of the Old Testament being used to create a setting for the birth of Christ. Again, in our tradition, we are used to seeing baby Jesus surrounded by animals - oxen, cows, sheep, etc. How do we know there were any animals present? Was the manger cave occupied or wasn't it? Again, the fact that tradition has tended to portray the infant Jesus surrounded by reverent animals does not come from exegesis of the Gospels, but a loose reading of Isaiah 1, where God says,

"Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand" (Isa. 1:2-3).

This is not a prophecy; it is simply a matter-of-fact statement contrasting the ability of even dumb animals to recognize their masters with the unwillingness of Israel to do the same. Western tradition has appropriated this phrase by means of typology to apply to the birth of our Savior, since Christ, too, was not recognized by His people, this served as the perfect foil against which to demonstrate the homage of the natural world to the Lord, exemplified by the animals taken from the text of Isaiah.

Thus in the Wise Men who represent all the Gentiles (three corresponding to the three continents known to antiquity), and in the animals who represent the natural world, and in the shepherds who are the poorest of the poor to the angels who sit by the throne of God, we have all creation at every level praising the Savior of the world.

No, our artistic representations of how the birth of Christ happened may not be entirely accurate in all their details. Was Jesus born at night? Who knows. But the western artistic tradition has applied some very pertinent typological texts from the Old Testament to give more depth to this already momentous event. Some may say this obscures the historic truth; I would say it brings the theological meaning of the event into greater clarity.

Merry Christmas.

9 comments:

Grinch said...

"This is a question of merely curious interest, perhaps not worth the thought I have expended on it, but - hey, it's Christmas."

Yeah, that time of year when you've got so much time on your hands that you can just up and examine questions out of mere curiosity, and then write lengthy articles for others to read with their overflowing wealth of time.

Merry Christmas, Boniface!

Flambeaux said...

There is at least one priest of the FSSP whom I have heard assert that the tradition of "midnight, in piercing cold", etc. is rooted in fact and he contends the source of the tradition is Mary herself.

I am not Spartacus said...

I have always believed in the Catholic Tradition and in the Christmas traditions (which I consider solidly anchored in fact) and the very last think I would do is to change my beliefs based upon the corrupt ideologies which are so influential in this ever more corrosive and corrupt culture

BONIFACE said...

Spartacus,

I would agree with you if we were talking about theological traditions that have to do with the object of faith. But when it comes to traditions that are artistic or devotional, I would disagree. I would be interested to know how Jesus being born at midnight is such a "fact" that a Catholic can't possibly question it, especially since as late as the 4th and early 5th centuries had not even agreed upon the date of Jesus' birth, let alone what time of day it happened at.

Not everything that is "traditional" is absolutely factual or authoritative, as the Catechism points out (CCC 83). When it comes to these artistic or devotional traditions, each one must be examined on its own merit.

I think there is good cause to assume that Jesus was born at night, but I don't see it as rock solid, nor do I see how discussing it or questioning our artistic tradition constitutes affirming any corrupt modern ideology.

I am not Spartacus said...

Dear Boniface. The great Dom Gueranger, in "The Liturgical Year," describes the Birth of Jesus on Dec 25th and my reference to corrupt modern ideology was rather opaque and unfocused; I should have written about the skeptical and miracle-denying ideologies of modernity.

I agree with Flambeaux's observation about Mary as the source of the time of her painless delivery of Jesus (although I just threw-in the painless point because I can not bear with five minutes of non-provocative writing.

BONIFACE said...

I see...well, even there I would say December 25th is very probable, but not absolutely grounded in fact (why didn't the early church fix this date until so many centuries later?) - still, you know elsewhere on this blog I have argued for a 25th date, so I am in agreement on the major point even if I dispute the degree of certainty we can have about such things.

Regarding Mary's painless delivery, absolutely true, but I hope you make a distinction between Pain and Effort. I do believe Mary brought forth Jesus painlessly, but I do not believe she brought Him forth effortlessly.

I am not Spartacus said...

The early Christians spent so much time not being martyred that for the first 300 years it was a might difficult to establish such things although there is a lot of evidence for the 25 from the get go.

I;ll post a link in just a second

I am not Spartacus said...

http://www.chronicon.net/chroniconfiles/Hippolytus%20and%20December%2025th.pdf

A Blessed Christmastide to you and yours. I love this site and because I have never been able to find a bumper sticker that read "Keep Christ and The Mass in Christmas" I had one made-up for my own self and it is on my car; sure, that was an oblique reference but I am all about things oblique....

BONIFACE said...

Well...yes and no. It is true that the persecutions of the Early Church kept certain things from being fixed, but that didn't stop them from fixing the date of Easter, or even having a schism over it. Besides, the Fathers of the 4th and 5th century do not all agree that this was the date and they just didn't establish it yet; they say that no one can really know the date (Augustine); earlier Fathers stated the day was celebrated in March (Cyprian).

But it is fruitless to argue about. You and I both agree on a probable date of the 25th, we just disagree on how much authority this date has and to what degree it is grounded in fact.