Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Forgotten Days of Christmass

T'was the night after Christmas and all through the house, all the creatures were stirring, yes even that mouse. The stockings removed from the chimney so bare, in hopes that New Year's soon would be here. The children could not from their toys be disturbed, the next step was the Christmas tree out to the curb. Mother was prancing from sale to sale and Father was watching the pigskin hail. O, what happened to Christmas? A thing of the past. Oh, what happened to Christmas? T'was over too fast.
Well, you get the point. Perhaps this is not how the Christmas season ends in your home. But in the world around us, Christmas ends on December 25th and becomes ancient history by the 26th. With all the sales and parties we are quick to forget the real reason for Christmas: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1). But the Christmas season doesn't begin and end on the 25th of December. It really is just getting started.
Historically the Christian church has celebrated the twelve days of Christmas which actually have nothing to do with golden rings or turtle doves. And who really wants a partridge in a pear tree anyway?! The twelve days stretch from the 25th of December to January 5th, the day before the Epiphany of our Lord, the 6th of January. That's when those wise-guys from the East came to find Mary with the Christ child. But what happens in between Christmas and Epiphany? Since the early days of the Christian Church, there have been several festivals that are celebrated in between Christmas Day and Epiphany. These forgotten days of Christmas are the Feast of St. Stephen on the 26th, the Feast of St. John the Apostle on the 27th, and the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs on the 28th of December. As we approach the celebration of Christ's birth and the redemption won for us by the blood of the cross, these forgotten days of Christmas point us to the work of our Savior in rather unexpected ways. As we celebrate Christmas, let us remember these often neglected days of Christmas.

St. Stephen's Day, on the 26th of December is mentioned on in that Christmas carol classic, "Good King Wenceslas." (that is, if you can get past the first line). So, why do we celebrate the feast of Stephen? St. Stephen was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5). He had been appointed as one of the Church's first deacons to distribute food and necessities to the poor as the Christian Church in Jerusalem continued to grow (Acts 6:2-5). Stephen also had been given the gift of wisdom by the Spirit and had been given to perform signs among the people. However, some of fellow members of the synagogue had a dispute with Stephen and were unable to overcome his winsome manner of speaking (Acts 6:10). So, they decided to bring false allegations against Stephen to the Sanhedrin. The trumped up charges were blasphemies against Moses (Acts 6:9-14). After being falsely accused, Stephen was allowed to speak and proclaimed a confession of faith covering the story of God's salvation from Genesis to the time of Jesus, the Messiah who had come into human flesh to suffer and die for the sins of the world. This brilliant confession of faith also ended with the accusation against the Sanhedrin that they had put Jesus to death. Stephen was dragged outside the city and stoned to death. Confessing Christ to the death his last words were, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:59-60). St. Stephen is therefore honored as the first martyr of the Christian Church. And so it is that many of the early Christians would die. While the blood of the martyrs is often called the foundation of the Church it is the martyrs and all faithful Christians who are covered in the blood of Jesus, born to be our Savior.

But not all the apostles were martyred. In fact, St. John the apostle lived to an old age surviving all the apostles to around AD 100, when he died in Ephesus. This is why the color of the church year used on a celebration of St. John's day is white and not red like the other apostles and martyrs. The 27th of December is the appointed day that the Church celebrates the Festival of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. John became known as the "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 21:20). Following our Lord's ascension, John quickly became involved in the church in Jerusalem and the spread of the Gospel to Ephesus. He also was given by the Holy Spirit to write the three epistles that bear his name and the Revelation given to him on the island of Patmos, where according to tradition, he was exiled by Roman emperor Domitian. Of the four Gospels, John gives us a unique glimpse into the life and ministry of Jesus, in particular the prologue in John 1 and the wedding at Cana in John 2.
The last of the three forgotten days of Christmas is probably one of the most overlooked in the twelve days of Christmas. The festival of Holy Innocents, Martyrs is historically celebrated on the 28th of December. "Matthew's Gospel tells of King Herod's vicious plot against infant Jesus after being 'tricked' by the wise men. Threatened by the one 'born King of the Jews,' Herod murdered all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger (Mt. 2:16-18). These 'innocents,' commemorated just three days after the celebration of Jesus' birth, remind us not only of the terrible brutality of which human beings are capable but more significantly of the persecution Jesus endured from the beginning of His earthly life. Although Jesus was providentially spared at this time, many years later, another ruler, Pontius Pilate, would sentence the innocent Jesus to death" (Treasury of Daily Prayer, CPH, 2008, p. 1065).

The twelve days of Christmas and these "forgotten days" help us remember that the celebration of Jesus' birth is a daily event, not just a once a year frenzy. So, remember these forgotten days of Christmas as we continue to celebrate throughout the year the life and salvation that come from our Immanuel, God with us, God for us, God who is one of us. A blessed Christmass to you.

By all Your saints in warfare, for all Your saints at rest, Your holy Name, O Jesus, forevermore be blest!  For You have won the battle that they might wear the crown; And now they shine in glory reflected from Your throne. 
"By All Your Saints in Warfare" - LSB 517:1.

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