Wednesday, 3 December 2008


Sean O'Duinn
The ‘Friends of the Hunt Museum’ hosted a talk earlier today by the renowned Celtic scholar Fr Sean O’Duinn OSB from Glenstal Abbey. He spoke about The Mystique Of Christmas And The Winter Solstice both in the context of its Christian expression and its older pagan and astronomical origins. Explaining how for over 300 years the early Christian believers had not celebrated Jesus birth, their focus being firmly and exclusively fixed on Christ's resurrection from the dead in the great festival of Easter. When the decision was made to add the Nativity to the church calendar, the selection of an appropriate date posed a huge difficulty as there was no precise date known for the Saviours actual birthday. No manuscript evidence existed to indicate the day so it was decided to commemorate a symbolic date as distinct from a historical one. December 25 th. was agreed upon as it coincided with the winter solstice when the suns power and light was in the descendant. In fact, without the suns turning at the end of the year the earth would be plunged into perpetual night thus eliminating all life from the planet! This was a cause of great concern throughout man's history and it made the winter solstice a time of impending gloom and uncertainty, explaining the plethora of pagan festivals occurring at this time of year. One of the biggest pagan celebrations was the feast of Saturnalia which was marked by excesses of drunken debauchery and wantonness, going on the premise of ’eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!’ What better time of year to celebrate Christ’s coming to earth, the light entering the darkness of our sinful world to redeem it and rescue it from death, as John puts it ‘He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:11-14) I think the argument could be made that in modern times the festival of Christmas has in large measure returned to the excesses of the Saturnalians ,with our emphasis on its hedonistic expression rather than its holy origins !

Sean O’Duinn continued to show similarities between the old Celtic mid-winter traditions which all centred on the diminishing of the sun’s vitality and the impending threat of darkness and extinction. At Brú na Bóinne in County Meath the chamber there is flooded with a stream of sunlight at the dawn of the winter solstice on December 21 st., and it is still uncertain as to why these Neolithic people built such an elaborate stone monument 3,500 years ago to capture this annual event. What is clear is that the solstice was considered a notable event worthy of the Herculean effort that must have gone into the building of this intricate construction ! One theory propounded by O’Duinn is that the penetration of the suns rays into the chamber at the moment of the solstice was a sort of mating ritual between Daghda ( the sun-god) and the earth ,whereby a new rejuvenated sun was birthed and so the earth was secured against the onslaught of universal darkness.

The speculative field of Celtic and pre-Celtic studies is very fertile ground indeed, as in truth the mute stone monuments are the only witnesses remaining from that distant time and place. While he believes that the similarities between the pagan and Christian stories shows how the latter may have borrowed elements of the former and incorporated it into its mythology , there is another view to which I would subscribe. The more plausible explanation might be that even back in pre-historical times God was preparing the world, through its flawed and uncertain mythologies for the ultimate cosmic event of His Incarnation in Christ’s coming to earth. Certainly the Old Testament Scriptures in their prophetic writings clearly foresaw the unfolding of the birth, life , death and resurrection of Jesus, as in this passage from the Prophet Isaiah… ‘He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ (Isaiah 53:3-6). This plain passage and hundreds of others foretold the coming of the Messiah to His chosen people, the Jews, and served to encourage them by announcing a future time when these tumultuous events would alter forever how man would relate to God. In a more inferential manner could God not have alerted the non Jewish world through their stories and legendary tales to the climactic theme of His redemptive plan for this world through the coming of His Son ?

Whatever the truth of the theories concerning those ceremonies and rituals now veiled by the mists of time, this much is clear, according to O’Duinn, Advent is the season to remember Deity clothing Himself in our human frame. A drawing down of the Divine to our lowly state, and the potential for man to be raised, through Christ’s life, death and resurrection to the glorified heights of fellowship with God himself ! This is the mysterious outworking of God's redeeming strategy for his created world, a message that as Paul stated ‘is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:18)
Gerard O'Shea

1 comment:

Tony said...

Great artice and I subscribe to your more plausible explanation.