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Why Portray Christ as the Sun God?
Christ the Sun god? The very idea! Has your columnist been not a Sun was portrayed in Early Christian times as the Sun God, or (in Latin) Sol.
Deep under St Peter’s in Rome, below the floor level of the Constantinian basilica whose foundations lie beneath the present building, are to be found the remains of the graveyard on the Vatican Hill where St Peter was crucified, according to tradition upside down. Amongst the tombs is one of special interest, that known to archaeologists as Mausoleum M (of the Julii) or to most other people as the Chapel of the Fisherman. Of Pagan origin, the tomb was converted to Christian use. On its vaulted ceiling is an extensive third-century Christian mosaic depicting Christ as the Sun god driving the chariot of the Sun across the sky. Two white horses rear up in front of the charioteer, who holds an orb (a symbol of the cosmos and of kingship) in his left hand. Unfortunately the mosaic is damaged, but, judging from the angle of the arm, Christ is almost certainly giving a blessing with His missing right hand.
There is not the slightest doubt that the mosaic is Christian. The scene is placed within an octagonal space created by stems of the gape vine that forms the background of the mosaic. The vine is symbolic of Christ “I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1 RSV) and, of course, of the Eucharist. The eight-sided frame to the scene is symbolic of the Eighth Day, the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the day of the Resurrection and the new creation in Christ, the day that signifies eternity. Rays emanating from the golden disk of the Sun, which creates a halo around the head of the charioteer, form the figure of a cross.
Any remaining doubts are set to rest by the existence of other scenes in the mosaic typical of early Christian iconography: Jonah and the whale, which Christ interprets (Matthew 12:40-41) as a type of His forthcoming passion and resurrection; the Good Shepherd carrying the lost sheep (John 10:14, Matthew
18:12); an angel hooking a fish. This last scene, which gives the tomb its popular name, is similar to many other fishing scenes in early Christian art. Such scenes probably derive from Christ’s words to the Apostles, “I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). Portraying Christ as the pagan Sun god might seem strange, but the fact is that myths can legitimately be used as types (foreshadowings) of New Testament narratives (antitypes) in precisely the same way as Old Testament narratives. Mythological scenes that would have been understood typologically, such as Orpheus charming the animals (Christ subduing the passions), were particularly popular in early Byzantine times as church floor mosaics.
Converts from Paganism would be far more familiar with pagan mythology than with the Old Testament, and doubtless were helped by being able to see structural parallels between familiar myths and Gospel narratives or the mysteries of the Church. Further, in an age of persecution, mythological scenes with a double meaning would not have attracted the suspicions of the authorities.
There are a number of New Testament linkages between Christ and the Sun. In Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, Christ’s face is said to have “shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (17:2). Similarly, in the vision of the Son of Man in Revelation, Christ’s face is described as being “like the sun shining in full strength” (1:16), and His eyes “like a flame of fire” (1:14).
Then there is the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1-6. Although, literally understood, the woman signified the Church, she came to be understood as referring to the Theotokos, and the Sun with which she was clothed was taken as referring to Christ, whom she bore. One of the more common titles of Christ is that of the Sun of Righteousness. This derives from the prophecy of the Day of the Lord in Malachi 3 and 4: For behold, the day comes burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evil doers will be stubble … But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings (4:1-2). This passage was understood to be a prophecy of the coming of Christ. Christ declared Himself to be the light of the world (John 8:12). He is the radiance or reflection of the glory of the Father (Hebrews 1:3).
It comes as no surprise that, in addition to the metaphor of the Sun, the liturgy is replete with metaphors of light and fire. An extract from the prayer of the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Theophany will have to serve as a representative example: Today the Sun that never sets [i.e., Christ] has risen and the world is filled with splendour by the light of the Lord … Today Paradise has been opened to men and the Sun of Righteousness shines down upon us … Today the blinding mist of the world is dispersed by the Epiphany of our God … The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid. The Jordan turned back, seeing the fire of the Godhead descending bodily and entering its stream. (Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, pp. 354-355.)
But there is solider evidence that our mosaic does indeed depict Christ as Christ to be the “Sun of Resurrection”, the “one begotten before the morning star, who gives life with his own rays”. (Since the planet Venus, as a morning “star”, rises on the eastern horizon shortly before sunrise, it has often been taken as symbolic of the Theotokos.) Clement goes further, actually describing Christ as a charioteer who brings eternal life with the dawn as He begins His ascent through the heavens in the chariot of the Sun: “he who rides over all creation is the ‘Sun of Righteousness’ who … has changed sunset into sunrise, and crucified death into life.” Quoted in R.M.Jensen, Art The pagans identified their Sun god, physical Sun, but for Christians the physical Sun is simply a symbol or metaphor for the Spiritual Sun, Christ, who as Pantocrator governs the whole universe from the centre of the spiritual supercelestial and supersensible heavens. (This is why the image of the Pantocrator is usually placed in the centre of the dome of an Orthodox church.) The Festal Menaion, London: Faber, 1977,Helios/Sol. Clement of Alexandria declares Understanding Early Christian, London: Routledge, 2000, pp. 42-43.)Helios/Sol, with the Light Comes from the East. The Scriptures and the liturgy aside, it was natural for Christians to associate the rising of the sun on the eastern horizon with the Resurrection of Christ. Further, it was believed that Christ would appear in the East at His Second Coming. According to Genesis the Garden of Eden was situated in the East, and so Christians symbolically placed the celestial Paradise in the East also. For these reasons, early Christians prayed facing East and were also buried facing East, so as to be ready to greet the risen Christ at the resurrection of the dead. Not surprisingly, churches were usually oriented to the East (and should be today where at all possible).
The Resurrection had occurred on the first day of the Jewish week, which commemorated the first day of the creation of Genesis. This led the Church from the beginning to adopt the first day of the week, rather than the last, the Sabbath, as the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10). On this day the local Christian community met for the regular celebration of the Eucharist and a common meal the day of the week the pagans dedicated to This coincidence established a firm link between the Sun and the Lord’s Day, the day of the new creation, the Eighth Day.
But another reason has been widely advanced as to why a strong association came to be established between Christ and the Sun. This is that the Church in the fourth-century chose December 25 as the feast of Christ’s Nativity in order to counteract the pagan festivities associated with the winter solstice, observed on the Julian calendar on this day. Nice theory, but is it correct? agape. This day also happened to be the Sol/Helios, Sunday.
Why Celebrate Christmas on December 25?
Although the actual history is very confusing and complicated, the gist of the story goes something like this. The birth of Christ had originally been commemorated along with the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Christ, and Christ’s first miracle at Cana in Galilee on January 6, the feast of Epiphany. These biblical events were seen as theophanic, as manifestations of God incarnate. Then in the fourth century a new feast was created on December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ. In the East, commemoration of the visit of the Magi was also transferred, but in the West it became the principal event commemorated at Epiphany, being seen as Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles. In the East, the Epiphany (or Theophany) became the feast of the baptism of Christ. The Armenian Church never did adopt the feast of Christmas on December 25, and to this day continues to commemorate the birth of Christ on January 6. The theory is that the Church promoted the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness (pagan feast of the Nativity of the Unconquered Sun) solis invicti on December 25. The pagan solar feast had been instituted by the emperor Aurelian on 25th December 274 in order to promote a monotheistic cult of the Sun with the intention of unifying all existing cults (shades of Akhnaton). As such, the festival of the Nativity of the Unconquered Sun, the theory runs, would have been seen as particularly pernicious by the Church.
The trouble is, there appears to be no concrete evidence to support this theory. And, indeed, at least as early as 243, thirty one years before Aurelian’s creation of the festival of the Unconquered Sun, a direct connection had been made between the Malachi prophecy and the nativity of Christ. So, why was December 25 chosen?
In early times, there were two particularly widely canvassed dates for when the Crucifixion might have occurred, March 25 and April 6. But there was also a tradition that the conception of Christ, the Annunciation, occurred on the same day of the year as the Crucifixion. Allowing for gestation, the birth of Christ would have occurred nine months after His conception, on either December 25 or January 6. The commemoration of the birth of Christ on January 6 was in harmony with April 6. They moved in favour of March 25. Part of the argument in favour of March 25 for the conception was that it was the conventional date of the spring (we are talking about the Northern Hemisphere, of course) equinox, the beginning of the astronomical year. Surely the Word would have become flesh at the spring equinox.
But there was another reason for favouring the 25th of March. This was that it was believed (following the apocryphal Book of James) that the annunciation to Zechariah - John the Baptist’s dad - occurred on the Jewish Day of Atonement, which falls around the time of the autumn equinox. The conventional date for the equinox was September 24.
So, Conception of John on the autumn equinox, September 24 (though in the East the feast is celebrated on the 23rd); Nativity of John, nine months later, on the summer solstice, June 24; the Annunciation on the spring equinox, March 25, and the Nativity of Christ (who, according to Luke 1:26 was conceived six months after John) on the winter solstice, December 25. natalis solis iustitiae) in opposition to thenatalis) and of the Sun god, Mithras, which was also keptzeitgeist, however, Voilà!
The spiritual/liturgical year of the Sun of Righteousness, and of His Forerunner, John, is brought into perfect accord with the tropical (seasonal) year of the physical Sun. It all fits together; and so it should! Christmas in its origins is no pagan feast in disguise, though regrettably much energy has been expended in recent times in paganising it.
Dr. Guy Freeland teaches hermeneutics and liturgical
studies at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College.