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.