Sadly, in the secular world of the United States Christmas, when the clock strikes midnight on December 26th, Christmas is over. In the Christian liturgical calendar (and in many secular cultures around the globe, from which we could take a hint), Christmas is celebrated for 12 whole days. Hence, the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, which my friend Tim Schenck compares rightly to 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
Lest we think of twelve days of fun and frivolity, the first few days following Christmas Day flesh out the implications of God Incarnate in Christ. That tiny baby born in a stable, worshipped by shepherds and greeted by angels? This Emmanuel, God With Us? We may be tempted to stay with the sweetness of the moment of the infant wrapped in bands of cloth, but God crashing into humanity and by adoption and grace delivering humanity is a big event…and a big story. And just in case we are tempted to forget, the Church gives us 3 important days that continue to tell the story of Christmas.
December 26th is the Feast of Stephen, the proto-martyr of the Christian Church. We read of his martyrdom in Acts, when he is stoned to death. While he is being killed by rocks, he prays for the forgiveness of those who are killing him. We also read a man named Saul looked on (and perhaps participated). So this Christ born will tell us to pray for our enemies…and mean it. Even as we are being wounded and killed by the acts of others, we are to pray for our enemies. While most of us (I hope) will not be dragged into the town square and be stoned to death, many of us have been stoned emotionally and spiritually by others, beaten and wounded by the words and actions of others that have bruised our souls deeply. From personal experience, praying for them is not an easy task. It is a task only accomplished by the presence and help of the Holy Spirit. And we are called to engage this task.
December 27th remembers the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, the one to whom we attribute the writing of the Gospel of John, who gives us the prologue of the Word and some of the most challenging Gospel readings to preach on in the past year. John's words remind us that the Word was made flesh, the Light came, and that the darkness would not overcome the Light. Notice that John does not say that the Light makes the darkness go away. Nope. Darkness is still around. Bad things happen. Life is still hard, so if we think Christ means nothing bad will ever happen again, well, we'll be disappointed. But we do know that the Light will shine in the darkness. Life will be hard, we will weep and grieve and our souls will be stoned in this thing called life, and God will love us and we will have hope, even in our darkest moments.
And then there's December 28th, the day of the Holy Innocents - the remembrance of Herod slaughtering the children of Bethlehem as he tries to protect his power and authority. It's the stuff of The Coventry Carol, by the way, which is a lament for murdered infants. In the light of the message of love, mercy, forgiveness, change, and hope that is born into the world at Christmas, we will also be fearful of what we will lose in light of these holy gifts. So in our fear, in our desire to protect our power and authority, we may commit horrible acts. We may kill the soul of another as we attack another's dignity. When we are challenged by diversity and by other's truths, we may lash out in anger. On this day, while we remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by Herod, we would do well to be aware of our inner Herod and the tyrants active in the faith today who will commit unspeakable acts to protect the throne of supremacy and dominance.
The story of Christmas does not end in the manger. The story of God Incarnate begins there. During this season of Christmas, may we be willing to read the beautiful and the challenging parts and experience the fullness of this story.