Summary: Epiphany Sunday: Dates for Christmas and Epiphany. Star of Bethlehem. Calendar Development. Creation imagery.
What do the Magi have for lunch?
If the Magi are also philosophers, what do they have?
Pastronomy on Why
If the Magi Were Women...
You know what would have happened if there had been three wise WOMEN instead of three wise MEN, don’t you?
The three wise WOMEN would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the Baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and given practical gifts.
Today we celebrate both Epiphany and the beginning of a New Year. That got me thinking about the calendar, and holidays and such.
What is this “Epiphany” thing anyway? Epiphany literally means the “appearing.” It celebrates the coming of the Magi, the appearing of the star, and the incarnation of Christ. Few people realize that the church has been celebrating Epiphany longer than it has celebrated Christmas. Because the Epiphany represents a new dawn or new beginning, it is fitting that we celebrate it at the beginning of each new year.
There is actually no firm date for the arrival of the magi. In fact, there is no firm date for Christmas. There is not even a firm date for beginning of a new year. Personally, I find the whole history of the development of our calendar to be fascinating.
A couple of thousands years ago, the world used a calendar that is known as the Old Roman Calendar. That calendar had only ten months (March, April, May, June, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December). In total, these ten months had only 304 days. It was a mess. Not just days, but entire months had to be added now and then to keep the seasons in the right place. Eventually, the Romans added two permanent new months, January and February. These were not added to the beginning, but to the end so that each new year began on March 1.
In about 45 BC, the Julian calendar was adopted. It continued the use of twelve months with the new year beginning on March 1. The great new invention was that it included a leap day every fourth year. That day was added to February, but was added by making February 23rd last for two days. Because the orbit of the Earth around the sun takes a bit less than 365 and ¼ days, the Julian calendar is off by about 1 day every 128 years.
The next big innovation in the calendar was introduced by a monk named Dionysus Exiguus who decided to divide history and count years based on the birth of Christ. Dionysus miscalculated, making a mistake in the length of the reign of one of the emperors and making a simple mistake in math. As a consequence, instead of being born in the year 1 as Dionysus intended, the actual birth of Jesus must have been in either 5 or 6 BC on his calendar.
Because of the small error in the Julian system for leap years, key dates drift over time. In 1582, the vernal equinox occurred on March 11, instead of the expected March 21. Because the date of Easter is computed based on the equinox, this was causing Easter to drift, which caused concern in the church. Pope Gregory hired an astronomer to fix the problem. The result was the calendar which we use today with a corrected system of leap days, the leap day is added to the end of February, and years begin on January 1.
We tend to think that we have used the same calendar forever. Actually, the Gregorian calendar was not adopted by England, and consequently the American Colonies, until 1751, almost two hundred years after it was introduced.
When we celebrate the birth of Jesus, as we did two weeks ago, we celebrate it on December 25, but nobody knows for sure what date is actually the anniversary of His birth. The December date was chosen in a deliberate effort to Christianize a pagan winter festival called Sol Invictus. So what do we know about the real date?
Shepherds in Palestine keep their flocks out all night during the period from April to September, not in December. As I mentioned earlier, the date has to be in 5 or 6 BC based on historical references like the date for Herod the Great’s death.
Anyone who offers a more specific date is doing so based on the Star. The star plays a key role in the celebration of Epiphany, but what was that star.
If you pick out just about any event in the Bible, you will find some who deny that it ever happened. The star is no different. Haley’s Comet appeared soon after the death of Caesar Augustus in 14 AD. The empyreal cult, those who worshiped the emperors as gods, claimed that the comet was Caesar’s soul returning to heaven. Many modern skeptics assert that Christians invented the story of the star as a way of providing similar cosmological evidence for the divinity of Jesus.