Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Nativity of Christ Commemorated
The early Christian Church, it is now established beyond question, observed as a holy day the supposed day on which the Saviour of the world beheld this mortal sphere. See. however, the article CHRISTMAS. We may here add simply that Bingham insists upon: it that in the early Church the day of Christ's nativity was kept with the same veneration and religious solennity as the Lord's day; for they had always sermons on this day, of which there are many instances in the writings of Chrysostom, Nazianzen, Basil, Ambrose, Augustine, Leo, and others. Neither did they let this day ever pass without a solemn communion; for Chrysostom, in this very place, invites his people to the holy table, telling them "that if they came with faith, they might see Christ lying in the manger, for the holy table supplied the place of the manger; the body of the Lord was laid upon the holy table, not as before, wrapped in swaddling clothes, but invested on every side with the Holy Spirit" (Chrysostom, Hom. 31, de Philogonio, 1:399). And that the solemnity might be more universally observed, liberty was granted on this day to servants to rest from their ordinary labors, as on the Sabbath and the Lord's day. This is particularly, mentioned by the author of the Apostolical Consuttutions (Constit. lib. 8, cap. 33): "Let servants rest from their labor on the day of Christ's nativity, because on this day an unexpected blessing was given unto men, in that the Word of God, Jesus Christ, was born of the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the world." All fasting was as strictly prohibited on this festival as on the Lord's day; and no one, without suspicion of some impious heresy, could go against this rule, as appears from what pope Leo says of the Priscillianists, that they dishonored the day of Christ's nativity and the Lord's day by fasting, which they pretended they did only for the exercise of devotion in an ascetic life; but in reality, it was to affront the days of his nativity and resurrection, because with Cerdon, and Marcion, and the Manichees, they neither believed the truth of the Saviour's incarnation nor his resurrection. Therefore, in opposition to these and such like heresies. the Church was always very jealous of any one who pretended to make a fast of the nativity of Christ. Finally, to show all possible honor to this day, the Church obliged all persons to frequent religious assemblies in the city churches, and not go to any of the lesser churches in the country, except some necessity of sickness or infirmity compelled them so to do (Conc. Aurelian. 1, can. 27). The laws of the state prohibited all public games and shows on this day as on the Lord's day.
Some students of ecclesiastical antiquity hold the observance of Christ's nativity to be derived from the Encaenia, or feast of dedication of churches; others suppose, as is stated in the article CHRISTMAS, that it was designed to supersede the Saturnalia. It is, however, most natural to conclude that, in an age when the clergy were disposed to multiply festivals, the analogy of other events in the Saviour's history may have suggested the propriety of marking his nativity with a distinct celebration. It was at first observed on the 6th of January; but towards the end of the fourth century we have two distinct festivals, namely, that of the nativity of Christ, on December 25th, and that of the baptism, probably the circumcision, of Jesus, on January 6th.
The festival of the nativity is in the Roman Catholic Church not only distinguished by the advent, but by the observance of three saints' days immediately after it. Wheatley gives this singular reason for the collocation of these days: "None are thought fitter attendants on Christ's nativity than those blessed martyrs who have not scrupled to lay down their lives for him, from whose birth they received life eternal." He says, " Accordingly, we may observe three kinds of martyrdom: the first, both in will and deed, which is the highest; the second, in will, but not in deeds the third, in deed, but not in will. So the Church commemorates these martyrs in the same order: St. Stephen first, who suffered death both in will and in deed; St. John the Evangelist, who suffered martyrdom in will, but not in deed (being miraculously delivered out of the caldron of burning oil, into which he was put in Rome); the holy Innocents last, who suffered in deed and not in will — for though they were not sensible on what account they suffered, yet it is certain they suffered for the cause of Christ, since it was on account of his birth that their lives were taken away" (Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer, sec. 4, page 200). Other fanciful reasons have been assigned. It is uncertain at what time these festivals began to be observed in connection with that of the nativity. Some Roman Catholic divines in the Middle Ages represented the nativity on the stage. (See MYSTERIES).
Thus St. Francis, about three years before his death, with papal permission, celebrated Christ's nativity. "A manger was prepared by his direction, and the whole scene of the miraculous birth represented. The mass was interpolated before the prayers. St. Francis preached on the Nativity. The angelic choirs were heard; a wondering disciple declared that he saw a beautiful child reposing in the manger (Milman, Lat. Christianity, 5:265). The nativity of Christ has been the frequent subject of students of sacred art. The engraver and the painter have in all ages since the birth of the Saviour been busy in the treatment of this historic event on stone and on canvas. We insert here illustrations of several engravings on stone and glass which are regarded as superior specimens of sacred art by Christian archaeologists. See Manne, Diss. on the Birth of Christ; Lardner, Credibility, 1:1; 2:796, 963; Gill, Body of Divinity, on Incarnation; Bishop Law, Theory of Religion; Newton, Review of Ecclesiastical History; Dr. Robertson, Sermon on the Situation of the World at Christ's Appearance; Buckminster, Sermons; Edwards, Redemption, pages 313, 316; Robinson, Claude. 1:276, 317; John Edwards, Survey of all the Dispensations and Methods of Religion, volume 1, chapter 13; Bingham, Antiquities of the Christian Church, 2:114 sq.; Engl. Rev. 6:82 sq. (See ADVENT).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Nativity of Christ Commemorated'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/n/nativity-of-christ-commemorated.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.