On the Church and Society
December 23, 2005
Is the Christmas season really over once we pass December 25? That's what conventional wisdom tells us, but as is so often the case, it is just plain wrong.
The conventional wisdom actually has the Christmas calendar backwards. Retailers, for example, say the Christmas season kicks off some time around Thanksgiving and wraps up on Christmas Eve.
For Christians, however, Advent, which begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas, really is a period of waiting. Often noted is what Jeremiah said: "It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord." (Lamentations 3:26). This contrasts quite sharply with how hectic daily life usually is leading up to Christmas.
It is the twelve days of Christmas, as referenced in the carol of the same name, that mark the church's celebration. The true Christmas season starts on Christmas Day and ends with the feast of the Epiphany on January 6.
And what about that song "The Twelve Days of Christmas"? Again, the conventional wisdom seems to view it as a silly, indecipherable tune. But it is rooted in Christianity. Historic Trinity Lutheran Church in Detroit explains on its website: "The carol originated in England during a time when Catholics were persecuted. Seeming to be nonsense, each verse, in fact, contains coded symbols for ancient Christian themes associated with the days of the Christmas observance." For example, "four calling birds" refers to the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and "twelve drummers drumming" are the twelve doctrinal points in the Apostle's Creed.
The Christmas season, whether properly defined or not, also is widely viewed as the easiest time of year to be a Christian. While everybody can be Irish on St. Patrick's Day, it seems like almost everyone, in some way or another, celebrates at Christmas time.
Part of that is simply the appeal of giving gifts and being with family. But the Christmas season also brings many Christians back to church because they love the idea of a baby being born in order to save the world, as they should. And at the other end of the twelve days, Epiphany reveals Christ to the world, as the Magi, or three wise men, bring gifts to the Lord.
It is easy to warm up to the most innocent of babes and wise men bearing gifts, especially compared to what Holy Scripture and the church have to say at other times about, for example, sin, the need for forgiveness, suffering, death and redemption.
However, a closer look at the church calendar between Christmas and Epiphany might reveal a couple of surprises. One day is set aside to remember St. Stephen and another marks the Holy Innocents.
Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death for speaking the truth about Jesus Christ. The Holy Innocents were the boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem murdered by Herod in his attempt to kill the newborn King.
These two festivals during the twelve days of Christmas remind us that the birth of Jesus Christ does not mean that Christians will experience no suffering, loss and sadness. In fact, as Stephen made clear, the mere public act of proclaiming the faith can bring down the wrath of others. And the death of the Holy Innocents reminds us that evil is still very much at work.
The birth of Jesus provides the strength to carry on no matter what challenges we face. After all, this baby would experience the most brutal of deaths as well. But it was a death packed with significance for all.
As the angel said to the shepherds: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11) What does that mean? Well, before he died, Stephen said: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." (Acts 7:56) It means salvation.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.