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The Origins of the Church Calendar

Now that Easter is over, this is a good opportunity to reflect on what just happened yesterday and to share some thoughts on the origin of the church calendar.

As we noted in our previous post, Christians have been celebrating Easter (or Pascha) at least since the end of the second century.

Easter was the earliest feast day on the church calendar.

There is very little evidence (if any!) that Easter was celebrated by the apostolic church. That, of course, was one of the reasons why some Reformers rejected its observance.

Lawful worship, they argued, is established by God himself and cannot be the product of human invention. Thus, if God did not prescribe the observance of feast days, then it is unlawful to observe them.

When it comes to Passover and Pentecost, however, one could argue that since God did, in fact, prescribe their observance in the old covenant, it is lawful to commemorate Christ’s fulfillment of those feasts as part of Christian worship.

It is noteworthy that Paul tells the Corinthians to keep the feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread.

Cleanse out the old leaven, so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ, our Passover has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, keep the feast—not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness—but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:7–8).

The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ has inaugurated the feast of Passover, and that’s why we are called to celebrate the feast.

Of course, “the Christian Passover,” or Pascha, as Paul understands it, is a feast that we celebrate perpetually and not as an annual event on the calendar.

However, to argue that it is unlawful to commemorate the fulfillment of the Passover in the person and work of Jesus Christ on a particular Sunday of the year seems strange to me.

This is what we celebrate every Sunday, including Easter. The problem, of course, is when Easter Sunday is regarded as more holy than every other Sunday of the year.

In my opinion, it is lawful to observe Easter Sunday as long as we do not elevate that Lord’s Day above every other Lord’s Day of the year.

The celebration of Easter began pretty early in the Christian church, but that’s not the case with the celebration of Christ’s nativity on December 25. That did not become a widespread tradition in the church until the late fourth or early fifth century.

It’s not easy to trace the origins of Christmas and Epiphany (or Theophany). Christmas originated in the western part of the empire, while Epiphany originated in the east and commemorated the baptism of Jesus on January 6.

Eastern churches also commemorated the nativity, but that was included as part of the Epiphany celebration.

It appears that sometime in the latter half of the fourth century, in the eastern church, the commemoration of Christ’s nativity and his baptism were divided into two distinct feasts.

Perhaps, our clearest witness to this division is John Chrysostom. In a homily delivered in Antioch on December 20, 386, Chrysostom announced the forthcoming celebration of the nativity.

For from this feast [that is, the Nativity], the Theophany and the holy Pascha and the Ascension and the Pentecost take their origin and foundation, for if Christ had not been born according to the flesh, he could not have been baptized, which is the Theophany; he could not have been crucified, which is the Pascha; he could not have sent the Spirit, which is the Pentecost.

Thus, Christ’s nativity and his baptism are mentioned as two distinct feasts.

Five days later (December 25, 386), Chrysostom said to his congregation,

And really, this date of Christ’s birth has been manifest and known to us less than ten years…This, which has been known from of old to the inhabitants of the West and has now been brought to us, not many years ago, is suddenly growing and bringing fruit.

From this statement, we may draw several conclusions.

First, the practice of commemorating the birth of Christ on December 25 was instituted at Antioch sometime just before 380.

Second, this practice was brought over from the western churches, which had observed that date for a long time, “from of old.”

Third, one does not get the impression that the commemoration of Christ’s birth was a new practice in Antioch but only that the day had been changed. Chrysostom does not say that the practice was learned from the west but only the date.

Fourth, keeping the feast of the Nativity on December 25 appears to be a rapidly growing practice in the east. It is “suddenly growing and bringing fruit.”

Thus, it seems clear that part of what was celebrated at the feast of Epiphany was now being celebrated on December 25, as a separate and distinct feast.

This interpretation is confirmed by Chrysostom’s Epiphany sermon the very next month (January 6, 387).

We shall now say something about the present feast. Many celebrate the feast days and know their designations, but the cause for which they were established they know not. Thus concerning this, that the present feast is called Theophany – everyone knows, but what this is – and whether it be one thing or another, they know not.

Chrysostom goes on to argue that Theophany is not the day in which we commemorate the birth of Christ but, rather, his baptism. And he explains the reason.

Why is not that day, on which the Lord was born, considered Theophany – but rather this day on which He was baptized? This present day it is, on which He was baptized and sanctified the nature of water…. Why then is this day called Theophany? Because Christ made Himself known to all – not then when He was born – but then when He was baptized. Until this time, He was not known to the people…. Even the Baptist did not know Him until that day….

In the mind of our preacher, the celebration of Christ’s baptism as a theophany is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative itself. It was at his baptism, that his identity was first revealed to John and to all who heard John bear witness of him.

The fact that Chrysostom feels the need to explain why Christ’s birth is not being celebrated at the present feast suggests that at one time (in the recent past) it was.

We conclude that these two events, Christ’s nativity and his baptism, were now starting to be distinguished and commemorated on two separate feast days in the eastern churches.

Beginning in the mid-fourth century, a very different kind of festal observance was originating in another area of the east.

As part of his innovative plan to revitalize the city of Jerusalem by turning it into a pilgrimage center for saints from all over the empire, Cyril of Jerusalem was developing a festal calendar linked to certain sacred destinations.

“The central figure in all the changes that took place in the liturgy and festival calendar of the Jerusalem Church was the liturgically-minded Cyril.”[1]

From the beginning of the century, Constantine had been ordering monuments of glorious splendor to be erected at these holy sites.

When his mother, Helena, journeyed to Palestine around 325, the Christians living in Bethlehem were able to show her the cave where Christ was born. This site had been regarded as the genuine location of the nativity for a long time.

Around 248, Origen of Alexandria refers to a living tradition in Bethlehem,

[I]n conformity with the narrative in the Gospel regarding His birth, there is displayed at Bethlehem the cave where Jesus was born and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in the surrounding places – even among the enemies of the faith. They say that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians.

Over this cave, Constantine ordered a church to be built. The project was completed in 333.

If a festal calendar linked to the holy places were going to be constructed, then certainly, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem had to be on the list. No doubt, Christians would want to visit that sacred site!

Cyril seized the opportunity to revitalize the city of Jerusalem by turning it into a liturgical theme park, and waves of pilgrims from all over the empire started coming to Palestine to participate in the festal celebrations, which increasingly took on a theatrical nature.

One such pilgrim was a Spanish nun named Egeria (also spelled Etheria), who took an extended pilgrimage to the holy land from 381 to 384.

Thankfully, she left us a journal of her experiences, from which we can reconstruct some of the liturgical dramas that Cyril bequeathed to Jerusalem and ultimately to Christendom because they gradually spread to other parts of the empire.[2]

As these pilgrims returned home and told their friends about their worship experiences, other churches began more and more to imitate the local rites of Jerusalem. Thus, Cyril unwittingly set the trajectory of the worship of the Church for centuries to come.

With regard to Epiphany, we gain the following picture from Egeria’s diary:

On 5 January the Christians of the Holy City went in procession down to Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity, where they held a vigil very similar to the Easter vigil, in which a long series of Scripture lessons was read, outlining the history of salvation. There is a missing leaf in the manuscript at this point, however, and we can derive from the document in its present condition only something about a return to Jerusalem. Once back in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the pilgrims received a blessing from the bishop, and the monks spend the rest of the night in prayer at the church. At eight o’ clock on the morning of 6 January there was a celebration of the Eucharist. This being a festive occasion, a number of the presbyters preached on the lessons, which were read before the bishop took the pulpit and preached his sermon. For a full octave the feast of Epiphany was celebrated in the various sacred sites: the Church of the Upper Room, the Church on the Mount of Olives, and the church at Bethany. Spreading the services out like this meant that an Epiphany service was held in each neighborhood, which gave pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for a shorter time a chance to get to all the sites.[3]

The practice of reading a series of scripture lessons that recount the history of salvation stretches back at least to the second century.

Clement of Alexandria bears witness to such a practice in connection with Christ’s baptism. Clement also lists numerous views regarding the day of Christ’s birth. He writes,

[O]ur Lord was born in the 28th year, when…the census was ordered to be taken in the reign of Augustus…. And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of Pachon [May 20]. And the followers of Basilides hold the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings. And they say that it was the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar, the 15th day of the month Tubi [January 10]; and some that it was the 11th of the same month [January 6]…. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 19 or 20].

What is notably missing from Egeria’s description of Epiphany is any reference to Christ’s baptism.

The fact that Eusebius of Caesarea, in his descriptions of Constantine’s donations, makes no mention of a building erected on the site at the Jordan where Christ was baptized suggests that no such monument existed. If Epiphany commemorated the baptism of Jesus, then surely the pilgrims would have visited the Jordan.

On the other hand, the picture we get from Egeria’s journal is that Epiphany is all about Christ’s nativity and not his baptism.

Instead of mass baptism taking place at Epiphany (as in other eastern churches), in Jerusalem, it was done at the Paschal celebration, after a period of mystagogical catechesis.

Another important witness to the Christmas celebration at Bethlehem is Jerome.

In the same year that Cyril of Jerusalem died (386), Jerome settled into a monastery at Bethlehem and began his monumental work for which he is most commonly remembered, his Latin translation of the Bible.

Sometime after his arrival, he preached a sermon during the Christmas celebration at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Jerome carefully expounds a passage from Luke 2, which was, no doubt, one of the traditional scripture lessons used for the service. Apparently, he was only one of several preachers in this service, who took turns expounding the lessons in their order.

Egeria had mentioned that several Presbyters would do this before the bishop himself preached.

At the end of his sermon, after apologizing for the length, Jerome concluded by saying, “Let us be ready now to give our attention to the Bishop and earnestly take to heart what he has to say on what I have left out.”

Since Jerome worked for almost thirty five years in Bethlehem, it is hard to date this sermon, but it was clearly delivered after a major change in the celebration of Epiphany had taken place.

The sermon was preached, not on January 6 or on any of the festive days of the epiphanic octavia, but on December 25.

Thus, we see that even in Jerusalem, the nativity commemoration was eventually moved from the eastern date to the western date just as it had been moved in Antioch in the 380s. Apparently, this was not done without some objection because Jerome includes, in his Christmas sermon, an apology for the new date.

Since [Mary] was pondering [these things] in her heart, let us, likewise, meditate in our hearts that on this day Christ is born. There are some who think that he was born on Epiphany [namely, many eastern Christians including those in Judea]. We do not condemn the opinion of others, but follow the conclusions of our own study…. Both those who say the Lord is born then, and we who say he is born today, worship one Lord, acknowledge one Babe. Let us review a few facts, however, not to rebuke others by our reasoning, but to confirm our own position. We are not airing our own opinion, but supporting tradition [the tradition of the west]. The common consent of the world is contrary to the thinking of this province. Perhaps someone may object: “Christ was born here; are they who are far away better informed than those who are close by? Who told you?” They who are of this province, of course, the apostles, Peter and Paul, and the rest of them. You have rejected tradition; we have accepted it; Peter who was here with John, who lived here with James, taught us also in the West. The apostles are both your teachers and ours.

Jerome continues with this apology for the new date by arguing that the apostolic tradition was preserved in the peaceful west. In the east, however, it was lost because of conflict and war.

He reminds them of the overthrow and destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Vespasian and Titus and the expulsion of the Jews and Christians. Hadrian followed and destroyed whatever was left of the province, banning all Jews from entering and making it a thoroughly pagan city.

The point here is that apostolic tradition was more easily preserved in the west because of the wars in Palestine. Hence, the western date of December 25 is more reliable than the eastern date. Indeed, it is apostolic, argued to Jerome.

Jerome goes on to make the same distinction between Christmas and Epiphany that we saw in Chrysostom.

Now, we say that Christ was born today. On Epiphany, he was reborn [that is, baptized]. You who maintain he was born on Epiphany prove for us generation and regeneration. When did he receive baptism, unless you face the consequence that on the same day, he was born and reborn?

Once again, the former composite-feast has been split in two. As in Antioch, so in Jerusalem—“Epiphany was everywhere deprived of half its meaning, and now continued to be observed only as the festival of Christ’s baptism.”[4]

Jerome continues,

Even nature is in agreement with our claim, for the world itself bears witness to our statement. Up to this day, darkness increases; from this day on, it decreases; light increases, darkness decreases; the day waxes, error wanes; truth advances. For us today, the Sun of Justice is born.

Without question, Jerome is alluding here to the Roman festival of the Invincible Sun, dies natalis solis invicti, celebrated on December 25, the traditional date of the winter solstice. This pagan feast was instituted in 274 AD by the emperor Aurelian.

Those who argue for the derivation of Christmas from this festival lay great emphasis on the role of Constantine, who is known to have been a devotee of the Sun prior to his protection of Christianity.

However, it should be noted that although we find several places in the Church fathers where Christmas is compared and contrasted with Sol Invictus, it does not necessarily follow that Christmas was instituted as its substitute.

One manifest weakness of this theory is that Constantine did not institute the observance of Christmas on December 25 in Bethlehem after dedicating the Church of the Nativity.

As we have just seen in Jerome’s sermon, Bethlehem continued to observe January 6 as the Nativity until the end of the fourth century or even the beginning of the fifth.

Furthermore, Constantine does not institute the observance of Christmas in the new capital of his empire either. Christmas first came to Constantinople in 380 when it was introduced by the newly installed bishop, Gregory of Nazianzus.

One conclusion that we may draw from this historical data is that the nativity of Christ was not widely observed in the church on December 25 until the late fourth or early fifth century.

That is not to say that Christians did not celebrate the nativity of Christ before that time. They certainly did! But the point is that December 25 was not regarded as a holy day by most Christians until pretty late in church history.

The church calendar is something that evolved over a very long period of time. Even after the first two or three ecumenical councils, the church calendar was still in a state of flux.

As diligent students of the church fathers, the Reformers were well aware of that fact.

The Reformers knew that there was an unbroken tradition of Lord’s Day worship handed down from the apostolic age. And they were eager to preserve that apostolic practice.

But many of them had misgivings about the church calendar. One reason for those misgivings was the lack of evidence from the ancient church to substantiate its apostolic origins.


[1] Merras, Origins of Epiphany, 157.

[2] See Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 2, p. 285. For an English version of Egeria’s journal, see G. E. Gingas, Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrim, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 38 (New York: Newman Press, 1970).

[3] Old, 136. Egeria also notes that each day during the octavia the saints returned to Bethlehem for another service only to return to Jerusalem each night with the bishop. Cyril probably did not originate this annual commemoration of the Nativity in Bethlehem; it is much more likely that he elaborated on an already existing tradition that probably went back to the day when the church was first built.

[4] Lietzmann, Early Church, 3:316.


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