How to understand the "Christmas Proclamation"
If you attended Mass on Christmas Eve, you may have heard the "Christmas proclamation."
This is a beautiful, poetic announcement of the birth of Christ.
It says when Jesus was born, dating it from nine different events.
But the ways that they dated events in the ancient world are different than the ones we use today.
Here's how you can understand the Christmas proclamation when you hear it read . . .
About the Christmas Proclamation
Scott Richert notes:
This Proclamation of the Birth of Christ comes from the Roman Martyrology, the official listing of the saints celebrated by the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. Traditionally, it has been read on Christmas Eve, before the celebration of Midnight Mass. It situates the Nativity of Christ within the context of salvation history, making reference not only to biblical events but also to the Greek and Roman worlds. The coming of Christ at Christmas, then, is seen as the summit of both sacred and secular history.
In the 1980's, Pope John Paul II restored the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ to the papal celebration of Midnight Mass. (It had been removed during the reform of the liturgy.) Many parishes have followed the Holy Father's lead [SOURCE].
The rubrics for the Christmas proclamation state:
The announcement of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord from the Roman Martyrology draws upon Sacred Scripture to declare in a formal way the birth of Christ. It begins with creation and relates the birth of the Lord to the major events and personages of sacred and secular history. The particular events contained in the announcement help pastorally to situate the birth of Jesus in the context of salvation history.
This text, The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, may be chanted or recited, most appropriately on December 24, during the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours. It may also be chanted or recited before the beginning of Christmas Mass during the Night. It may not replace any part of the Mass.
The Proclamation Begins
The proclamation begins by solemnly announcing the day on which the birth of Christ is traditionally celebrated:
The Twenty-fifth Day of December
It then tells us in which year this occurred, dating it in nine different ways. . . .
1. From the Creation of the World
The proclamation first dates the birth of Christ relative to the creation of the world:
when ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created heaven and earth, and formed man in his own likeness;
This offers a non-specific date. It is merely after "ages beyond number."
The traditional version of the proclamation is much more specific: It says "In the five thousand one hundred and ninety-ninth year of the creation of the world."
This follows an ancient system of reckoning that differs from the Ussher chronology (developed by the Anglican archbishop, James Ussher, 1581-1656), which held that the world began in 4004 B.C.
The currently approved English translation, however, avoids mentioning any specific number of years.
2. From the Great Flood
The proclamation then refers to the dating of Christ's birth relative to the Great Flood:
when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood, as a sign of covenant and peace;
Again this is a non-specific date. It refers to "century upon century" having passed since the Flood.
The traditional version is more specific: "the two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seventh year after the flood."
3. From Abraham
The proclamation then dates the birth of Christ from the departure of Abraham from his homeland:
in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith, came out of Ur of the Chaldees;
Here we begin to get more specific: It's in the twenty-first century from Abraham, which would place the start of Abraham's journey sometime between 2100 B.C. and 2000 B.C.
The traditional version is even more specific: "the two thousand and fifteenth year from the birth of Abraham."
4. From the Exodus
The next major biblical event the proclamation uses as a dating point is the Exodus:
in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt;
Here again we have a century specified, and the dating would place the Exodus between 1300 B.C. and 1200 B.C.
The traditional version, by comparison, has: "the one thousand five hundred and tenth year from Moses and the going forth of the people of Israel from Egypt."
This reflects a shift in the common dating of the Exodus. The older view tended to place it earlier, in accord with the traditional version of the proclamation, but current thought tends to place it later, in accord with the newer version.
5. From the Reign of David
The birth of Christ is then dated from the time of King David:
around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;
Notice that we've dropped from the century level to the year level. Christ is said to be born "around the thousandth year" since David's anointing.
The traditional version is even more specific: "the one thousand and thirty-second year from David's being anointed king."
6. According to the Prophecy of Daniel
The proclamation then dates the birth of Christ relative to the prophecy of "seventy weeks of years" given by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Daniel:
in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel;
Calculations regarding the seventy weeks are tricky, but here the method of calculation seems fairly straightforward: Christ is reckoned to have been born thirty three years before the Crucifixion.
If you divide thirty-three by seven to convert it into "weeks of years" (i.e., groups of seven years), you get between four and five weeks.
Deduct 4-5 from 69-70 (depending on how you interpret the end point of the prophecy) and you land in the 65th week.
From here onward the traditional version and the current version of the proclamation agree on the dates they use.
7. According to the Olympiad
The proclamation then dates the birth of Jesus relative to the Olympiads:
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
It's rather surprising, but the ancient Olympics were so popular that they actually used as an international system for measuring dates.
People in the ancient world loved their sports just as much as we do!
Since the Olympics were held every four years, each Olympiad was a four year period (thus more specific than the seven year periods in Daniel's prophecy; note the continued motion from the general to the specific).
The first Olympic games were held around July 1, 776 B.C., and the first four year period (the "first Olympiad") lasted from around July 1, 776 B.C. to around June 30, 772 B.C.
If Jesus was born in the 194th Olympiad then that means he was born 193 Olympiads after the first. 193 x 4 = 772, so that would put his birth between July 30, 4 B.C. and June 30 A.D. 1.
8. From the Founding of Rome
Another system of dating used in the ancient world was based on when the city of Rome was founded.
You sometimes see references to this system of dating in books on classical history. Rather than "A.D." or "B.C.", it will be abbreviated "A.U.C." (Latin, anno urbis conditae, "in the year of the founded city").
According to the Christmas proclamation, Jesus was born
in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome;
Rome was held to have been founded, according to the common reckoning at the time, on April 21, 753 B.C. That was when the first year of Rome began.
If you flash forward 752 years to find the birth of Christ, that would put it around 2 B.C.
9. From the Beginning of the Reign of Augustus
Finally, we have the birth of Christ dated to the beginning of the reign of Augustus Caesar:
in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace,
Augustus began reigning shortly after Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C.
Flash forward to the forty-second year of his reign and you find yourself around 2 B.C.
We now come to the climax of the Christmas proclamation . . .
Having dated the event in nine different ways, we now come to the event itself:
JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and when nine months had passed since his conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man:
The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
I love that!
But there is still one question . . .
How Accurate Are Those Dates?
The early, highly specific dates found in the traditional version are probably not that accurate, which is why the current version is more general.
But what about the later ones--the Olympiad date, the date from the founding of Rome and the beginning of the reign of Augustus?
They are probably quite accurate.
Those numbers were not plucked out of nowhere. They represent a solid consensus among the Church Fathers and other early Christian sources about when Jesus was born.
For example, here is just one such source, the father of Church history, Eusebius of Caesarea:
It was in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus and the twenty-eighth after the subjugation of Egypt and the death of Antony and Cleopatra, with whom the dynasty of the Ptolemies in Egypt came to an end, that our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea, according to the prophecies which had been uttered concerning him. His birth took place during the first census, while Cyrenius was governor of Syria [Church History 1:5:2].
The degree of consensus among the ancient sources is truly startling.
If you eliminate one or two outliers, all of the ancient sources indicate that Jesus was born in the year 3/2 B.C. (that is, in the second part of 3 B.C. or the first part of 2 B.C.), plus or minus a few months.
Unfortunately, many today are unaware of the impressive evidence that this is when Jesus was born.
One reason is that about a century ago a German scholar misdated the death of Herod the Great to 4 B.C. when he misidentified an eclipse that occurred near the death of Herod. (You can read about that here [.pdf]).
So the Christmas proclamation is likely to be right on the money when it gives us the year of Christ's birth.
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