Monday, December 27, 2010

On the Fourth Day of Christmas...

...we chuck out the tree and take down the lights.

Or at least that seems to be the way it is around here. This seems to me to be a pity, but I suppose it is inevitable given that most folks have been celebrating Christmas - or that great euphemism "The Holidays" since sometime around Thanksgiving. I have a suspicion a lot of people are 'Christmassed-out' long before the 25th. I sometimes wonder whether our delightfully full churches on Christmas Eve, and the relatively empty churches thereafter until the New Year are a reflect the fact folks feel they have reached the climax, and can now have a little break.

However, Christmas in the Church's calendar is a far more complicated thing. For a start, like Easterit has its time of preparation; the four Sundays of Advent in which we investigate the different ways Christ was proclaimed - for example, in Scripture and by St John the Baptist. During Advent the dominant themes are the need to reflect and make ready for the coming of the Saviour. The antipation is cranked up even further by the nine Advent antiphons ending with "O Virgin of Virgins" on the 23rd.

Then there are the two Christmas Eucharists - the early one reflecting on the historical circumstances of His birth, and then the main Mass at which St John invites us to meditate upon the mystery that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

The next three days - St Stephen, St John Evangelist, and the Innocents Day - all have a particular connection with Christ. St Stephen was the first to give his life for the Gospel after the Resurrection; St John of all the evangelists sees deepest into the mystery of the Incarnation; and the Holy Innocents whose blood was shed because of the rage and fear of Herod who had heard that a new king, the true king, had been born.

The fact that two of three Holydays immediately associated with Christmas should concern martyrdom is a reminder that the the incarnation happens under the shadow of the Cross. Whilst the birth itself was a time of unalloyed joy, the Gospel accounts place it between two somber warnings. Firstly, if you cast your mind back to the Annunciation, the angel proclaims to the Blessed Virgin Mary that a sword shall pass through her own heart, that sword she felt almost 34 years later when she sees her Son crucified at Golgotha. Secondly, shortly after His birth the Magi bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh - the last being particularly associated with death.

The feast of the Nativity itself is followed immediately by the Martyrdom of Stephen, and then three days later by the account of the murder of the Innocents. Even the 'white' feast of St John in between is not completely untouched by persecution for the sake of the Gospel. John was exiled to Patmos for the sake of the Gospel, and there is an old tradition that someone tried to kill the Evangelist by poisoning the chalice.

In the context of our prayers on St Stephen's Day we remembered before God in our Eucharistic intentions the Nigerian Christians murdered as they attended Christmas services. A sobering reminder that men still fear and hate the Good News of Christ. The reason folks fear the Gospel so much is because it faces them with some Absolute Truths - particularly our need of God, and for the salvation that comes through Christ alone. People find it difficult to accept that they are sinners who need the grace of God, and in their denial of His grace, they are often driven to persecute those who live by His Gospel.

The Octave of Christmas closes on New Year's Day closes with the feast of the Circumcision. Modern liturgists tend to run scared from the Circumcision mainly, one suspects, because it brings them a bit too face to face with both the humanity and the Jewishness of Christ. It is a day on which one needs to remember both the fulfilment of the Old Covenant, which was so much of Christ's mission, and also give thanks for the his Holy Name, which proclaims or Salvation.


  1. I love it. We didn't put up our tree until December 23rd, and won't take it down until after January 6th. In fact, I was working on Christmas Day, so we put our celebration of gift giving off until Epiphany. We still celebrated with my parents and the rest of my family on Christmas night, but we still have our celebration coming up.

    I found myself getting into the expectation of Advent, so much so that I didn't actually gain that "Christmas Cheer" until Christmas Eve, when I was at work for the first of three days at the Prison I work at.

    As for the rest, we have been celebrating it here at home, reading the Epistle and Gospel readings as the celebrations come up.

    Thanks, Your Grace, for reminding us that the Christmas Season lasts much longer than Christmas Day.

  2. Hello Archbishop Robinson,

    We had a late start this year, hanging outdoor lights the day after Christmas, Dec. 26th. The neighbors were a bit surprised by this; moreover, we have no intention to take them down until the 12th day of Christmas. The contrast seems like one way to make Advent more special?

    Meanwhile, I've been told it might be 'liturgically correct' to keep house lights up past Epiphany, at least to the end of that octave. Have you heard anything along these lines, even as long as Feb. 2?
    thanks! Sincerely, Charles B.

  3. I remember reading somewhere that Martin Luther did not believe that the Epistle of James belonged in the Bible because it was too "Jewish." The Feast of the Circumcision that our Lord was not only Jewish but a observant Jew. I would also add St. Thomas of Canterbury, B.M. 1170. But this is probably more about my being made a deacon on this date. It seems that kings named Henry had problems with people named Thomas.

  4. As a great lover of Christmas as it is intended to be anticipated and then celebrated according to the Book of Common Prayer, I loved this post. We never put up our tree until Christmas Eve and then it was off to the midnight service and back again for the morning one. The English are lucky in their tradition of Boxing Day so there is a chance to go to Church again on St. Stephen's. We, as Americans, are just going to have to emphasize what the Prayer Book teaches and find a practical way of actually doing it again. We also need to teach the meaning of the feast of the Circumcision and that of the Epiphany. It is a shame to have such theological and liturgical riches and to neglect them.

    I understand Father David's fondness for the 29th, but have come to believe that Henry was right about Becket. As much as I love Eliot's play, Becket was playing power politics with the Church and siding with an institution that, as Bishop Robert Grossteste later pointed out, was taking more money out of England than was required to run its government. Worse, that money certainly was not being used for the relief of the poor or the advancement of the faith.

    Let us all take advantage of the coming year to be better Christians and more observant Anglicans.

  5. Sir Peter, was that only YOU last night on the bagpipes...sounded like just one??? Very nice though & I look forward to it very year, I even braved the freezing did you, were you wearing a kilt LOL!

    Happy New Year my kind neighbor,

    210 Cory Ave

  6. Christmas lights going down today: 1/14 Last on the block, btw!