Of Unicorns and Griffins

My wife’s youngest sister Martha (hello Maha!) likes to celebrate a rather unusual holiday. For several years now she and her family have made a concerted effort to observe with appropriate ceremony and festivity the holiday of Groundhog Day. Their celebration consists of eating lots of sausage (ground hog… get it?), singing Groundhog Day songs, and watching the Bill Murray movie about the day. Way to go, Martha!

Such an interesting idea—celebrating a holiday that others mostly ignore. There are many days like this on our calendar. Indeed, you can do a search on the internet and find that there is something being celebrated every day of the year. This runs the gamut from National Lazy Day (August 10) to Start Your Own Country Day (November 22). You can celebrate almost anything almost any day. Yet, in this abundance of serious and silly holidays, sometimes there are lesser known days of importance that are overlooked… and overlooked to our loss, I would like to say. One such holiday is coming up in just two days. And that holiday is the focus of this Trogo.

March 25 is a day that is usually just another day on the calendar for most people. Unless it happens to be your birthday—or you are really into celebrating National Pecan Day or Waffle Day—you will probably go through the entire day without giving a thought to its significance. Yet it is indeed significant. Why? I am glad you asked.

Actually, March 25 has had quite a career as an important day. For a long, long time it was reckoned as the first day of spring. And since spring is the time of renewal, new birth, new growth, this day was considered the beginning of a new year. Yes, for centuries New Year’s Day was observed on March 25, not January 1. Indeed, this was still the case in the early history of our own country. (Long before he was our first President, Ol’ George would have considered March 25 as the beginning of the year.) But in addition to being the first day of spring and the new year, March 25 also held a special spiritual significance for the early Christians. But this will take some explanation.

There was a commonly held belief among many ancient Jewish scholars in what has been called the “integral age.” By integral age we mean a lifespan that is whole and complete, without any fractions of a year. These Jewish wise men believed that the prophets of old lived a full cycle of time during their lives. In other words, if they were born on the 22nd day of the month Abib, then however many years they lived, they also died on the 22nd day of Abib. The rabbis asserted this was the case with Jeremiah and Isaiah and the other great prophets. Certainly an interesting concept.

The early Christians adopted this idea of an integral age and applied it to Jesus, the Messiah. A number of early Christians asserted that the Messiah’s life was a unit, a whole. How this actually was to be reckoned was a matter of some debate. Some believed that Jesus died on the same day he was born. Others argued that God was even more precise than that, and that Christ died on the same day he was conceived. This latter assertion gradually became the more prominent. To further our discussion, you should understand that many ancient writers were convinced that Jesus was crucified at the spring equinox, which they calculated to be… yes, here it is… March 25. Therefore, there were early Christian leaders who taught that Jesus was conceived on March 25, and that since His life was a whole, complete unit (an integral age), He also died on March 25.

Now think about this. What is the normal span of time of human gestation? In other words, how long does a woman usually carry a baby? Nine months, right? Well, If Jesus was conceived on March 25, then it only makes sense that He was born on December 25. Or, at the very least, we should celebrate His birth on December 25. And thus is born the date of Christmas.

Whoa. Wait a minute. Did you think that December 25 was picked as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth in order to supplant the pagan Roman Saturnalia, and the feast of Sol Invictus? This is conventional and popular wisdom. Yet—it is wrong. Remember I said that it was early Christians who asserted that Jesus was conceived on March 25 and born on December 25. Well, how early? Very early. Indeed, the first mention of observing the 25th of December as the birth of the Savior was posited by Hippolytus in the second century. Get that? Second century.

But didn’t Hippolytus, and whoever else, really just pick this day because they wanted to substitute a Christian holiday for a pagan one? Well, NO! First of all, the Roman feast of Saturnalia was indeed very ancient. However this week-long celebration ended on December 23, two days too early. If the Church Fathers wanted to replace Saturnalia with a birth celebration for Jesus, they must have been pretty stupid. They missed it by two whole days. Well, you say, what about the festival of Sol Invictus (the “unconquered sun”)? Wasn’t this actually on December 25? Yes, it was. But (and the “BUT” here is a big one!)… But, the feast of the Unconquerable Sun is not as ancient as most people assume. This festival was begun in A.D. 274 by the Roman Emperor Aurelian.

Did you get that? 274. That’s over a hundred years AFTER Hippolytus. Indeed, what some historians think is most likely is that Aurelian saw the growing popularity of Christianity, and he noticed that (in the latter part of the third century) it was already common in Rome to observe the 25th of December as a birth celebration for Jesus. So in an attempt to stem the growing tide of Christianity and to restore Rome to its pagan roots, Aurelian usurped the Christian holiday and made it his own. So celebrating Christmas was not the church’s attempt to replace a pagan holiday after all. Rather, it was the other way around. Celebrating Sol Invictus was a pagan attempt to replace a Christian holiday. Hmmmm!

Now that the matter of December 25th is all cleared up, let’s return to March 25.

To sum up our history, March 25 has become the day in the church in which we celebrate the conception of our Lord. Right? Well, sorta. You see, if you look on a church calendar, you will see this day listed as the “Annunciation of our Lord.” Generally this holiday is simply called the Annunciation. What does that mean? Well, it is generally assumed that when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and announced to her that she was to bear the Son of God, that it was at that moment that the conception of the God-Man occurred in her womb. So we remember and celebrate this announcement… or annunciation. Christian art has honored this event, and this day, through many centuries. Portraying the angel appearing to Mary and pronouncing God’s will and blessing upon her is a common theme in many, many paintings. And I suppose this is natural. For what was happening inside of Mary was unseen and impossible to portray. So the church has focused on what happened tangibly and visibly—the visit of Gabriel, and the obedient submission of Mary. And this is good.

Yet, I feel that maybe the emphasis, which is definitely on something good and godly, has still been too much on the lesser players—Mary and Gabriel—and we have missed an opportunity to celebrate something wondrous. For really this is not just the Feast of the Annunciation, nor even primarily about the Annunciation. Instead, should it not really be the Feast of the Incarnation? Shouldn’t that be the emphasis? Should we not observe this day as holy and solemn and awesome—for it was on this day that God became Man?

Think of it. Mary is visited by the angel. He declares words to her that are beyond belief. She will bear in her womb the very Son of God. And with that declaration, something happens inside of Mary that is unseen by the world, but which is a cause of wonder and awe among angelic hosts, and is viewed with terror and dread by demons. For it is only in the world of the spirits that this even can even faintly and vaguely be comprehended.

The angel speaks. Mary hears, submits, obeys. God the Holy Spirit reaches into the womb of this poor Jewish maid, touches her internally, and does something truly incredible. In that instant, a creative miracle takes place that is on par, or even above, any other creative act that has been or ever will be. Yes, it is on a level with the initial creation ex nihilo, where God spoke and what was not came to be, out of nothingness came everything. It is on a par with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, where the Triune God took a lifeless lump of earthen humanity and transformed it into a renewed, revivified, glorified, immortal and incorruptible spiritual Body. What occurred in the womb of Mary matches anything that God will do in the age to come when He causes the heavens to melt with a fervent heat, and the Almighty refashions and recreates all existence into a new heaven and a new earth.

This was indeed a creative miracle. That is the only way we can understand the Virginal Conception that occurred that day. What was not came to be. Before, there were ordinary human ova, unfertilized homo sapiens eggs. (Not immaculate. Not supernatural. Just ordinary.) Yet, in the next moment one of these eggs is now fertilized, is a human being just beginning to be. And that human being is the God-Man, who will be called Jesus of Nazareth.

We celebrate this at Christmas, and rightly so. But we should also celebrate this every day—and most especially on March 25.

Think of it. One of the common themes at Christmas time is the wonder of His lowly birth. We sing, and speak, and dramatize the condescension of the Divine; Deity manifest in the poverty of a human baby. We are amazed at the Almighty lying in an animal feed trough. But what of the condescension that was evident before this? That is what we should celebrate on March 25th—the Almighty lying in a virgin’s womb, in the lowliness of human gestation.

We often think of the marvelous fact that the Babe was God in the flesh. As indeed He was. But so was that fertilized egg. Think of the process. Think of the wonder of it. To put it in modern terms: That now fertilized ovum is God incarnate. That zygote is God in the flesh. That blastula is the God-Man. That embryo is the fullness of the Godhead in human form. That fetus is Deity in the body of man. That newborn baby is the Divine Son of God—in truth, God the Son. The Creator has become a created thing.

Oh wonder of wonders! O most sublime mystery! O most awful truth! O most holy reality!

To our frail, limited, weak human minds such a notion seems fantastical. Perhaps this is one reason why we sometimes use the fantastic to portray this divine miracle. Ever wonder why such mythical beasts as the unicorn and griffin became a part of Christian symbology? The griffin is half lion, half eagle. It represents the divinely celestial (eagle) and humanly regal (lion). It is an image that evokes thoughts of the lofty and sublime indwelling fleshly, albeit kingly, humanity. The unicorn is a similar hybrid animal. It has a horse’s body, but the cloven hooves and bearded chin of a goat. It also has a twisted, double-spiraled horn… two halves that unite into a single point at the tip. It is interesting to note that in Medieval lore the only way to capture a unicorn was to use a virgin as bait. If a pure, godly virgin were sitting in a forest alone and a unicorn were to approach her, he would lay his head in her lap, and be so calm and still that he could be made captive. See the parallel? The majestic and noble and powerful is brought to such total submission through a virgin’s “lap” that he can be captured, bound and even killed. Fantastic images? Surely. But useful. For how else can we depict what is beyond human imagination?

So today, we write to you of griffins and unicorns. We speak of a Virginal Conception and a Virgin Birth. We focus on the Incarnation, the enfleshing of the Divine into a human frame. No wonder in some churches when the worshippers arrive at the line in the Nicene Creed where it declares truth of the Incarnation, they bow or genuflect. Who should stand erect at such awesome truth?

Do you now see why I believe that March 25th is an important but overlooked holiday? I really think that it is an occasion that should be celebrated and honored. Perhaps we should consider making it a “Little Christmas”? Without the event we remember on March 25, there would be no Christmas Day, no Good Friday, no Resurrection Celebration. So on March 25th, let’s celebrate the wonderful mystery of the Incarnation of God in the divine Person of Jesus Christ.

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Some suggestions on celebrating March 25 as the Feast of the Incarnation:

> Celebrate a mini-Christmas. Hang some evergreens and tinsel. Play Christmas music. Have a “Christmas” dinner with family and friends.

> Spend some time meditating on the Scripture passages that focus on the Incarnation. These passages include: John 1:1-3 & 14; Galatians 4:4; Luke 1:26-38, Colossians 1:9, Hebrews 2:9-18, Romans 1:3-4, Philippians 2:6-8, Hebrews 1:3.

> Do a study of traditional Christmas songs. Many of them have magnificent words exalting the Incarnate Lord. For example, note these lines from “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity, Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”

> Quietly listen to music that focuses on the glory of the Incarnation. Some suggestions: Handel’s Messiah; The Final Word by Michael Card; The Birth of Jesus by John Michael Talbot.

> Do some study and reflection on incarnational symbols images. This might be paintings of the Annunciation. It might be pictures of griffins or unicorns. It might be a icon or sculpture of the Christ Child. Reflect on the idea of God in human form—lowly, poor, needy, frail, weak humanity.

> Choose to live out an incarnational Christian lifestyle. Let the Jesus that is in you shine forth. Do good to your neighbor. Go the extra mile to demonstrate agape. Be kind to someone who doesn’t deserve it. Condescend to do something menial, dirty or lowly. Sacrifice your own comfort for somebody in need.

> Do something for the prolife movement. The very idea of the Incarnation should compel us to be concerned about the life of the unborn. It was God in the flesh that Mary carried in her womb. So write a letter. Call your congressman. Make a donation to a Christian pro-life group. Join a picket line or a protest rally. Speak up. Do something.


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