Sunday, December 27, 2009

On the Feast of Stephen 2009

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Each year at Christmas I hear the same thing, usually
on what is called "Boxing Day" or very shortly thereafter:
"Well, Christmas is over for another year" ... "Well, I
guess that was Christmas for this year, time to get ready
for the New Year" ... "Happy New Year" ... etc. What this
indicates is that in the minds of most of the folks
around us, Christmas really only consists of one single
day, December 25, and nothing more. You spend several
months getting ready for that one day ... buying gifts
... making tarts, puddings, pies, etc. and then it is
all over in a quick flurry of wrapping paper, bows, toys
that needs batteries, dried pine needles, cranberry sauce,
and perhaps, painful hangovers.

Needless to say, this emphasis on a single day,
leads people to emphasize those things that culturally
have become the customary events of that day ...
the gift opening ... the turkey dinner ... the endless
dainties ... and being with the family. Of course,
none of these things are wrong in themselves,
nor the usual seasonal emphasis on being generous
and kind. All that is without any doubt good. But
such things have very clearly become the heart of
the celebration in many, many homes, even in the
homes of those who do actually make it to some
church or other on Christmas Eve or perhaps
even on Christmas Day (although church on Christmas
Day is usually pretty poorly attended in Canada,
for obvious reasons).

All this is one of the reasons why I appreciate very
much the actual season of Christmas, for it is a
season of twelve days, as we all know from the
popular traditional song, in which "my true love
gave to me" not one present but twelve. Likewise,
we know that the title of William Shakespeare's comedy
"Twelfth Night", refers to the last evening of the
last day of the Christmas season, a time when a
great deal of foolishness was traditionally permitted
in Merry Old England.

The celebration of Christmas in the early church took
some time to develop. It was not there right in the
early centuries but appeared rather later. But the
church did develop a season that is called Christmas
... not just one day ... just as we have a season
that is called Easter ... not just one single day.
This wise custom, of a season of twelve days, is
preserved in the calendar and lectionary of the English
Book of Common Prayer. It is a wise custom for us to
observe in our time because it helps us to focus on
the actual heart of the celebration, its theological
heart, the Incarnation of the Son of God.

When all the flurry of buying gifts and opening them
is over, behold, Christians are still quietly
celebrating Christmas, still singing Christmas
carols right on into the New Year, still reading
about the birth of Christ right on into early
January. Then they go on, on January 6, to
celebrate Epiphany, which is not just a single
day but also a season (of varying length depending
on the date of Easter), a kind of continuation of
the celebration of Christmas in that in Epiphany
the Incarnate Deity is manifested or shown forth
to the whole world.

What happens in Vegas may need to stay in Vegas
but what happened in Bethlehem does not
and cannot stay in Bethlehem.

Hail, thou ever bless'd morn.
Hail, Redemption's happy dawn.
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

So, celebrating all the twelve days of Christmas
... with prayer, the reading of Scripture, and
the singing of hymns and carols (and remembering
that Boxing Day is really the feast of the first
martyr, Stephen), can help us to focus on what
God wants us to know about the birth of His Son
... the real "why" of Christmas ... and help us
to proclaim it to others. As we take the time to
reflect and wonder, we remember that this is the
One who came to "save his people from their sins"
(Matthew 1:21). He did not come just to suggest
to us that we should be nice to each other, although
He is an example of perfect charity and calls us to
the same. But rather He came primarily for the
salvation of His people, to accomplish perfectly
the salvation of His church. And He accomplished
what He came to do perfectly, so that if Christ
has died for you, you can never be lost. This is
the real message of the manger and of the twelve
days of Christmas. Thankfully, we shall have not
just twelve days but all eternity to sing of it.