HISTORIANS ARE YET TO FIND any evidence that Christians celebrated Christmas before the 4th century.  Prior to the 4th century, early Christians celebrated only one feast-the Passover of the Lord, that is, his passing through death to new life.  This was celebrated weekly, that is, on Sunday, and annually, that is, at Easter.  Christmas came later. 

The earliest available document in which Christmas is mentioned is dated 354.  In that document, the Chronographer, compiler of the civil calendar, referred to December 25 as Natalis Invicti, that is, "birth of the unconquered Sun".

In another document, the Depositio martyrum(list of anniversaries of martyrs), the Chronographer places December 25 at the beginning.  He wrote: "December 25-Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea".  If, as historians agree, that list saw the light of day around 336, one may be allowed to draw the conclusion that the feast of Christmas began to be celebrated in Rome in the third decade of the fourth century.

The celebration of Christmas was a Christian reaction to the homage which the people of Rome offered to divinities of pagan religion.  In place of the pagan feast of the Unconquered Sun, Christians established a feast dedicated to Christ as Sun of Justice.  St Augustine alludes to this substitution in a Christmas homily dated after 411 or 412.  He said: "This is the birthday of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  It is the anniversary of the day on which 'Truth sprang out of the earth', and the Day of Day was born to bring light into our day.  It is a day we ought to celebrate; 'let us rejoice and take delight in it.'"

The rising of the sun announces the beginning of a new day.  Seeing the power of the sun, adherents of pre-Christian religion of the Roman world worshipped the sun.  But in place of the pagan feast of the Unconquered Sun, St Augustine calls Christ "the Day of Day".  What brings a new day is not the sun but the Son.  The Son of God is the "Day of Day".  His birth brings light into our day. A new dawn has risen for humanity. 

The light the Day of Day brings is justice.  Hence, St Augustine continues in the same homily: "Let us joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption.  Let us celebrate the hallowed day on which the great Eternal Day came from the great Eternal Day, into this, our so short and temporal day.  Here He 'is made unto us…. justice and sanctification and redemption….Christ who said, 'I am the truth,' is born of a virgin.  And justice has looked down from heaven: man, believing in Him who has been born, has been justified not by himself, but by God."             The sun brings light.  Light reveals what is hidden in the dark.  Light reveals truth.  And where truth reigns there justice is found.

In an old Christian hymn, used as the Prologue of the Gospel according to John, and read at Mass on Christmas Day, the Evangelist wrote: "In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God….Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him.  What has come into being in him was life, life that was the light of men; and light shines in darkness, and darkness could not overpower it….The Word was the real light that gives light to everyone."

Another early Church father, St Athanasius, wrote in his treatise On the Incarnate Word that the Word was made flesh to reveal God to us so that human beings will know the true God and no longer worship creatures, and by worshipping the one true God, be restored to immortality.

The Word has brought light and justice.  But the world has refused the Word.  Refusing the Word, the world refused light.  So the world continues to live in darkness, in the darkness of injustice. St John continues: "He was in the world that had come into being through him, and the world did not recognize him.  He came into his own and his own people did not accept him."

Injustice is symptom of selfishness.  Selfishness is when the only person who matters is me.  Selfishness is failure to recognize the humanity in the other person who is then seen as an object to be deceived, defrauded and manipulated.  Selfishness is when I, as a government official, habitually resort to cheap propaganda meant to conceal the patent incompetence of the government I represent, misleading the populace.  Selfishness is when I use my privileged public office to steal the wealth of my country.  Selfishness is when I use public office to enrich myself, impoverishing my fellow citizens.

Selfishness is when political affiliation is solely for the purpose of getting into public office, when my political affiliation is so fluid that I can change political parties up to four times in less than twenty years.  Selfishness is when I hijack the discourse of the oppressed and marginalized for my own self-seeking agenda.

Selfishness is when I drive on the road as if the road belonged to me alone, endangering my life and the lives of others.  Selfishness is when I drive a car with worn out tyres on excessive speed on an expressway, hit and damage another person's car who narrowly misses being pushed off a bridge, and I tell the owner of the car, while my spouse acts as cheerleader: "I did not hit you.  It was an accident."  It's like saying there was theft but there was no thief. 

Selfishness is when policemen pass by the scene of the accident without stopping.  Selfishness is when three groups of officers of the Federal Road Safety Corps pass by the same scene without stopping to offer any assistance.  Selfishness is when the same Federal Road Safety Corps pastes on doors to its offices that the fee for renewing your driver's licence is 6, 350 naira but the Road Safety official at the desk tells you must pay 10, 000 naira.

Selfishness is lawlessness, a habitual disregard for the common good, the erroneous belief that I can find fulfillment by working against the fulfillment of others.

But "light shines in darkness, and darkness cannot overpower it".  Despite all the selfishness, our world is blessed with persons who give their lives to others.  Despite the darkness, there are shinning lights offering us consolation in this valley of tears.  Last Monday, I was privileged to be in a gathering of more than fifty priests and three bishops at St Agnes' Maryland to celebrate with one of such-Father Eddie Hartnett of the Society of African Missions.

Born in Ireland in 1943, Fr Hartnett was ordained to the priesthood fifty years ago on December 18, 1967-twenty years and two days before I was ordained. He has spent forty nine of those fifty years working in Nigeria.  I knew Fr Hartnett in 1970 while I was growing up at St Paul's Ebute Metta.  I have since come to know him as a missionary who devotes his whole life to the people of God.  His more than four decades of priestly life and ministry in the midst of the Egun in Badagryearn him the title of Apostle to the Egun.  In him, the Day of Day is represented in our midst.

On my way back to Ibadan after the beautiful celebration, a woman driving on top speed lost control of her vehicle and collided with mine.  But the issue was not so much the accident.  It was the insolence she and her husband-said to be a community leader in Arepo-displayed after the accident. 

Thanks to Fathers Gomez and Ogbitebu of the Diocese of Abeokuta, and some of their parishioners who came to the scene and offered assistance, my belief is strengthened that even as darkness covers the earth and reigns in many hearts, "light shines in darkness, and darkness cannot overpower it". 

That Light is what we celebrate this Christmas.  May the blessings of this Light be on all who read this column.

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