Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Solstice is the Reason for the Season

"Thy birth, O Christ our God, rose upon the world as the light of knowledge;
for through it those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness and to know Thee, the Sunrise from on high.
O Lord, glory to Thee."

Yep. It's that time of year again. As much as I hate the holidays, I promised my wife that I would try very, very hard to be full of good cheer this Christmas. And trust me, I'm trying hard.

Regardless of my feelings for the holidays, particularly Christmas, it's once again upon us. So it is the perfect time to discuss what Christmas is really all about.

Our story begins, of course, with Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. However, Christ wasn't a name, but rather a title. It derives from the Greek word, christos, meaning "anointed one". The Jewish translation of christos is the word mashiyach. Mashiyach is also the same word used to for the terms messiah. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for oil or any oily substance, is shemen. You do the math.

Theologians and apologists state that no one truly knows when Jesus Christ was born. It wasn't until 350 C.E. that Pope Julius I declared that Christ's birth would be celebrated on December 25th. It is believed that he was trying to sway pagans, particularly in Rome, from their pantheon of gods who were also born on December 25th, namely the followers of the god, Sol Invictus. As with Christ, Sol Invictus isn't so much a name as it is a title applied to a deity. This title was given to at least 3 solar deities including Mithras. Others contend that December 25th was chosen to coincide with the celebration of the Saturnalia, a holiday celebrated by the Romans that occurred on between December 17th to the 23rd.

Saturnalia itself was dedicated to the Roman god, Saturn, one of the oldest gods of antiquity. To the Greeks, he was Kronus. To the Ammonites, he was Moloch. Throughout the Hebrew world, he was known as Remphan and Chiun. But before he was known as any of these titles, he was known as El, and worshipped by the ancient Hebrews. The ancient symbol for Saturn was a 6-sided star, that the Israelites likely lifted from Egypt. Again, you do the math.

While there are many gods that have the same attributes as the "messiah", one that holds the most striking resemblance to Christ is Mithras of Persia. Mithraism was most rampant in the late Roman empire, but its origin can be traced to Northern India and Iran, where he was known as Mitra. Mitra was known as the protector of the Hittites, and his name supposedly means, "contract", and was likened to the blazing Sun, according to the Vendidad, a collection of ancient Zoroastrian texts within the Avesta.

Many solar deities were said to have been born on or around December 25th, and Mithras is no different. While some say he was born of a virgin (Anahita), there is little evidence to support this claim. It is more widely accepted that Mithras was formed from a rock, and that the his birth was named, Dies Natalis Solis Invicta, or the Birthday of the Invincible Sun. Mithraism has had such a huge influence in the formation of Christianity around the first century that you could almost trade one for the other. Blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, baptism, an epic battle between good and evil, and perhaps even communion, have all played a part in forming Christianity. Even some aspects of the Egyptian cult of Osiris have played crucial roles in the formation of Christianity.

Anyway, I'm getting a little off topic here. Let's look at the annual solstices.

Summer begins on June 21st, the day of the summer solstice, as the Sun reaches its highest point in the sky in the Northern hemisphere. Shortly thereafter, the Sun begins its annual descent into the southern sky. As the Sun rises every morning from around June 24th to December 21st, it does so at a rate of approximately 1 degree per day. But on December 21st, the Sun reaches it's lowest point in the Northern hemisphere.

But something interesting happens for approximately 3 days. The Sun appears to rises in the exact some position in the east, not rising or falling. But on December 25th, the Sun rises 1 degree toward the North. Therefore, it can be said that the Light of the World has risen, offering hope, the eternal cycle of life, warmer days, and renewal.

If you go out on Christmas Eve and look toward the east around 7:00 P.M., you can see the constellation Orion, provided you have a clear sky. There are three stars that are of particular interest regarding the Christmas story. They are the "belt stars" of Orion, Alnitak, Mintaka, and Alnilam. In many ancient cultures, these three stars were called what they are sometimes still referred to -- the Three Kings. More on these three "kings" in a moment.

If you draw a straight line through these stars and follow them toward the east, you will see Sirius, the brightest star in our night sky, which rises just before 8:00 P.M.
At approximately 3:00 A.M. on Christmas morning, the constellation Virgo, the Virgin, rises completely in the eastern sky. By 7:00 A.M., the Sun has risen.

Let's see what we have here: 3 stars, that the Egyptians referred to as the Three Kings, that point toward a bright star rising in the east, followed by Virgo, then the Sun on December 25th. Sound familiar? It should.

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

Gospel of Luke 1:29-34

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they say the star, they were overjoyed.

Gospel of Matthew 2:7-10

Christian apologists will argue, of course, that the idea of the story of Christmas is a completely astronomical event false and misleading, particularly that the story of the magi. Apologists will state that the Gospel of Matthew does not record 3 magi, but only that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh, and that this is where the idea of 3 people arriving to worship Jesus comes from. However, numerous texts have stated that the magi were indeed three, including Marco Polo's, The Travels: The Description of the World, that address them as Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior. Which brings us back to the Three Kings.

Balthazar is likely a variation of Belshezzar, the Babylonian king named in the Book of Daniel. Oddly enough, the name means, "god protect the king," or "the king's protector." But which god? None other than Ba'al, whom Christians and Jews alike refer to as Ba'al Zebub, Beelzebub, or the Lord of the Flies. The faithful refer to this figure more commonly as Satan.

Gaspar, or Jasper, is likely a corruption of the name Caspar. The Acts of Thomas possibly refer to him as Gondophares, the first Indo-Parthian king. Finally, Melchior, arguably derives from the melech, the Hebrew word for "king,"or "ruler". Interestingly, melech may likely be a form of Moloch, a Canaanite and Phoenician deity, whose worshippers offered him infants through sacrificial burning. Ergo, the Three Kings.

Err, Magi. Sorry.

As with many stories from antiquity, the story of the birth of Jesus Christ is found in the stars. Is it any wonder that the Bible tells its followers to stay away from astrologers? From the Egyptians and the ancient cultures throughout Mesopotamia before them, nearly every event in the New Testament has occurred in other mythic tales long before the advent of Christianity.

Stay tuned.

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