Keep the faith

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Friday 8 Jan 2021

Our first order of business is to wish our Coptic and Eastern Orthodox friends a very Merry Christmas and to all a Happy New Year.

We need it more than ever. We celebrated Christmas on 25 December. But should we neatly put away our beautiful decorations?

Not yet, not if 12 per cent (approximately 216 million) of the world’s Christians are still celebrating the birth of Christ on 7 January.

It has always been so and we always dismissed it as a discrepancy in dates and calendars, and were satisfied with this explanation.

This year, however, paralysed and saddened by our confinement, caused by a dismal, deadly virus, with activities restricted mostly to our homes, we had time to dig longer and deeper, to discover the essence of this variance in dates, with a degree of reason.

When and why did the Christian Church decide to celebrate the birth of Christ, which can only be one uniform date?

The obvious answer is that there must have been a split within the Church itself and indeed there was.

The rift was caused due to a complex mix of religious disagreements between the Western (Rome) and Eastern (Byzantine) branches of the Church over a surprisingly, simple matter: Was it acceptable to use unleavened bread for the sacrament of communion?

The West had no objection, the East rejected the concept.

More conflicts surfaced, particularly regarding the power in Rome. Rome believed the Pope of the Western Church should have authority over the patriarch of the Eastern Church. The Patriarch Cerularius of Constantinople disagreed.

On 16 July 1054, the patriarch was ex-communicated from the Christian Church based in Rome. The Eastern Church retaliated by excommunicating Pope Leo III and the Roman Church with him.

That was the breaking point between the Roman and the Byzantine Church, referred to as the Great Schism. The resulting split divided the European Christian Church into two major branches, the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church with each recognising their own leaders.

In 1965 Pope Paul V and Patriarch Athenagores lifted the long-standing excommunication decrees made by their respective churches, but for 1,000 years, they remain distinct expressions of a similar faith.

The Coptic story is a whole different matter. While the Coptic Church of Alexandria belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Churches, it had already split from the Christian Church in 451 AD in a major schism over the nature of Christ, believing that Christ is perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity.

The Coptic Church is the main Christian Church in Egypt, with 10 of 11 million members and one million outside of Egypt. There are 100 churches in the US alone as well as a Cathedral in the UK. They have their own pope, who is also pope to Ethiopia.

Copts believe their Church goes back to around 50 AD, when the Apostle Mark visited Egypt and became the first pope of their Church.

It was the first to start Christian monasteries as well as the first to establish ecclesiastic schools.  

Copts are among the 12 per cent of the world’s Christians to celebrate Christmas on 7 January . Why? The answer lies in many Orthodox churches’ decision to adhere to a 2,000-year-old calendar that differs from the one used by most of us. That brings us finally to our first premise, the different calendars.

In 325 AD, a group of Christian bishops convened in Niceae, holding the first ecumenical conference. First on their agenda was to standardise the date of the Church’s most important holiday, Easter. They decided to base it on the Julian calendar, a solar calendar which Roman ruler Julius Caesar adopted in 40 BC — it did not work.

By 1584 the dates of important Church holidays drifted so much that Pope Gregory XIII convened a group of astronomers and proposed a new calendar — the Gregorian calendar.

The Orthodox Church rejected it because an overlap between Passover and Easter was inevitable. It continued to rely on the Julian calendar. By 1923 there was a 13-day difference between the two calendars putting Orthodox Christmas 13 days later than 25 December.

The Armenian Church has always adhered to 6 December as Christmas.

This long and lengthy chronology is the essence of the tale and should put the matter of the two main Christmases to rest. However the subject may be pursued further if you are so inclined.

The best part of our research is that, although we are living in a universe where secularism is on the rise and the laws we obey are only government laws, religion is also on the rise.

With communism gone, churches have opened their doors in Russia and 75 per cent of the Russian population admit to being religious. Many Eastern Orthodox refrain from eating meat for 40 days before Christmas, celebrated on 7 January.

We need God. We need religion. Why then has it not disappeared?

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic concluded that religious involvement and faith are associated with better health, longevity, coping skills, anxiety, and depression.

Religious people have higher self-esteem and better psychological adjustment.

Nobody knows for sure when Christ was born, but for sure we celebrate the day with love & Faith.

Faith is personal, mysterious, individualistic and irrefutable. It needs no evidence.

“A man with God is always in the majority.”

John Knox (1505-1572)


*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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