Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Category: Twelve Days of Christmas (Page 3 of 6)

December 28 — The fourth day of Christmas

The Massacre of the Innocents by Angelo Visconti (1829-1861)

Today’s Bible reading

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2:16-18

More thoughts for meditation

The fourth day of Christmas honors the memory of the Holy Innocents, all of the young boys slaughtered at the command of King Herod when he hoped to kill the newborn Jesus.

Herod “the Great,” king of Judea, was unpopular with his people because of his connections with the Romans and his religious indifference. So he was insecure and fearful of any threat to his throne. He was a master politician and a tyrant capable of extreme brutality. He killed his wife, his brother, and his sister’s two husbands, to name only a few.

Herod was “greatly troubled” when magi from the east came asking about where the “the newborn king of the Jews” might be whose star they had seen. They were told that the Jewish Scriptures named Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah would be born. Herod cunningly told them to report back to him so that he could also “do him homage.” They found Jesus and offered him their gifts. Then, warned by an angel, they avoided Herod on their way home. Jesus escaped to Egypt.

Herod became furious and “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under.” The horror of the massacre and the devastation of the mothers and fathers led Matthew to quote Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children…” (Matthew 2:18). Rachel was the wife of Jacob (Israel). She is pictured as weeping at the place where the Israelites were herded together by the conquering Assyrians for their march into captivity.

On the 4th day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Four Calling Birds  [This is the 1909 American version.  Earlier English versions have “colley birds” or black-as-coal birds.  There are other versions as well.]

The spiritualized version of the song says this secretly stands for the Four Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who told the life and ministry of Jesus from birth to death to resurrection. The word for church in Greek is, essentially, the “called out ones.” The fist believers (like the gospel writers) were “calling birds” called out to build the church.

 Suggestions for action

Pray: Help me not to give up weeping for the children.

Like it happens so often with United States leaders, Herod called out hatred based on fear. What resulted was a military action that killed children. His action was as astounding a scene as the picture of children in cages along our border or pictures of starving children who are the first to experience the impact of climate change.

In juxtaposition to such a horrible memory, this day includes a call from the gospels to see Jesus, the holy innocent, who takes away the sins of the world. To whom are you listening? To what are you called? In what death-dealing action are you complicit?be it a blow to your own innocence or the sacred heart of other? For what are you calling? Today is a good day to meditate on those questions.

December 27 — The third day of Christmas

“Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” by John Giuliani, 1996

Today’s Bible reading

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love (Jesus). – John 15:9

More thoughts for meditation

Today is the feast day of John the Apostle and Evangelist, who recorded the words of Jesus, quoted above. He called himself “the beloved disciple.” I doubt that means he was more beloved than others, but it certainly means he knew he was loved!

On the 3rd day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Three French Hens.

Today is also the third day of Christmas. Going with our spiritualization of the kids Christmas song, the singer’s “true love” (that would be Jesus, in this case) sent His true love (John, Paul and the rest of us disciples/friends) three “virtues”that is, three inner motivations that dispose one to act rightly. In the Catholic catechism, faith, hope and love are the “theological” virtues. The famous Thomas Aquinas  explained that these three virtues are called theological “because they have God for their object, both in so far as by them we are properly directed to Him, and because they are infused into our souls by God alone, as also, finally, because we come to know of them only by Divine revelation in the Sacred Scriptures”

Actual French hens, here, are probably just chickens, although French hens were bred for show in the 1800’s. In the 1600’s, however, a meal of three nice chickens would be what rich people were eating. Some interpretations of the song say the “secret” meaning has a lot to do with expensive gifts brought by the wise men: gold, frankincense and myrrh. In that case you can sing this verse as a praise song, seeing Jesus telling the world how his true love made a feast for him in the cold world, and offered her best to do it.

Suggestions for action

Pray: As the Father loves you, you love me. Thank you.

Regardless of secret meanings, the clear message is all about love: Jesus and you are one another’s beloved and you are exchanging valuable gifts. It would be terrible to keep Christmas with a discussion of the value of chickens or an assessment of one’s virtue, wouldn’t it?!

Be the beloved who got the “chickens” on whatever level you want to interpret that. Supply your own secret meaning, if you like.

Be the lover who gives the gifts. We often feel so needy, we forget our commitment to love. Why don’t you take a step out of your usual reactions to others or your usual routine and do something that gives someone some love in a way they can understand it. Don’t call attention to the fact you are doing this, just be it. Later, write in your journal about how that felt or how it didn’t.

December 26 — The second day of Christmas

Rembrandt — The Stoning of Stephen

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Acts 22:1-21

When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. “Quick!” he said. “Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.”

“Lord,” I replied, “these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.”

Then the Lord said to me, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”

More thoughts for meditation

The future that dawns with the birth of Jesus does not come without cost.

For Stephen, the future meant trading his life for telling the truth to the powers that be. We remember his martyrdom on the second day of Christmas each year. This is the “feast of Stephen” we sing about in the Christmas carol: “Good King Wenceslas.” BTWVaclav (“vatslaf” in Czech) Havel who died a few years back , is a namesake of King Wenceslas and also something of a martyr for speaking back to the powers when the Czech Republic was born in spite of Soviet occupation. Stephen was the first martyr of many to come in the church.

For Paul, moving into the dawn of the future meant leaving Jerusalem in a hurry, at one point. As in today’s reading. It meant an adventurous, but totally unpredictable and often troubling life on the road.

On the 2nd day of Christmas my true love sent to me…Two Turtle Doves

Receiving doves, a sign of truth and peace, would be lovely enough. If you want to go with the possibly-catechetical secret meaning of the carol, the two doves represent the Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God’s self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the story of God to the world.

Suggestions for action

Pray: Help me look around without fear and see my opportunities to share your truth and love.

St. Stephen’s Day was a big day in England. It was known as Boxing Day, the day church alms boxes were opened and the contents distributed to the needy. Nowadays is it a big day for hospitality; many people look for people who might be left out to fill their table. In Ireland some places held Wren Day , if you’d like to know another place Mummers came from.

It costs us to tell the story of our faith, or so we fear. What is your story? Spend a minute with Jesus and let him help you remember who you are in Christ.

December 25, 2021 — The first day of Christmas

Today’s Bible reading

“Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so . . . .” — Luke 13:34

More thoughts for meditation

As we gather around our Christmas trees to celebrate Christmas, few of us think of Christmas Day as a beginning. For most people Christmas is the culmination, the climax, of weeks of planning, shopping, and anticipation. Not many are even aware that Christmas is but the first day of a twelve-day season of joy.

Ever since the Council of Tours met in 567 and proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive time, the church officially has observed both an Advent season for preparation and a Christmas season for the celebration of our Lord’s nativity.

Unfortunately much of the richness of these religious seasons was muted in the Reformation. The Reformers tried to move people from the visual to the intellectual, from elaborate ritual to the simple observance; they favored minimalist gatherings for teaching and prayer rather than spectacles. As a result, the festivals of Advent and Epiphany, which had become the mix of biblical stories and allegorical traditions they are still today, were suppressed in Reformed churches. However, in spite of the church’s stand, people weren’t willing to give up some of their delightful Christmas customs. As a result, Advent and Christmas became desacralized, became times of good-natured reveling rather than times for spiritual observance.

Recently Evangelicals and Anabaptists have tried to recapture the spiritual festivals of the Christian year. They have revisited the wisdom the church year dramatizes and how it gives the whole church another look at the story of Jesus at the heart of everything. We are among those few Protestant-based Christians who have recovered some of the richness of the traditional religious seasons and festivals. The church year forms an annual curriculum, of sorts, that tells the story of our faith: those who experience it soak up the basics of the gospel.

So let’s have the twelve days of Christmas until January 5 (Twelfth Night) and enjoy Epiphany, January 6.

The popular song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” can lead us. This old carol is usually seen as simply a nonsense song for children. However, some authors in the 1990’s suggested that it was also a song of Christian instruction, perhaps dating to the 16th century religious wars in England, with hidden references to the basic teachings of the Christian faith. They contend that it was a device to teach the catechism to youngsters. The “true love” mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who shares faith in Jesus. Each of the “days” represents some aspect of the truth in Christ that is important for children to learn. It is probably just a fun dance song that is sort of annoying when it is merely sung. But pondering how it could represent deeper things is fine. Jesus followers can meditate on almost anything and experience the presence of God leading us to dance! So let’s start with a line from the “Twelve Days” each day..

On the 1st day of Christmas my true love sent to me… A partridge in a pear tree

Since partridges are unlikely to be seen in pear-trees (they are ground-nesting birds), it has been suggested that the text “a pear tree” is a corruption of the French “une perdrix” (a partridge).

For those who want this song to have a religious meaning, the partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge. Legend has it that partridge mothers will feign injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings. This would be something like the Lord’s sentiment in today’s reading, wanting to take Jerusalem under his wings like a hen. The ground-nesting partridge stuck in a tree is as odd as the Son of God, now lying relatively secure in the manger, nailed to “the tree.”

Suggestions for action

Pray: I greet you Lord, born this happy morning. To you be all glory given.

George Gallup identified Christian nurture at home as the sharpest difference between churched and unchurched Americans. Repeated traditions help all of us know and remember who we are and develop our identity as God’s children. The celebrations help us all express our faith.

Advent was meant for anticipation and preparation. Christmastide was for an extended celebration. Getting the horse back into the barn it escaped on Black Friday is probably a lost cause. But these entries are little gifts to help us recover from the worldly glut that most of us just experienced and refocus on the Joy to the World about whom angels were singing in the wee hours of this morning. If you really want to get into it, you could spread out the kids’ gifts over twelve days with the best one reserved for Epiphany. You could offer little gifts to those you love or who ought to love Jesus over these days of celebrationjust little love notes would be more than most people get.

Like Jesus, you might want to look out over our region and have some feelings. On the one hand, literally millions of people understand quite well what this day is all about. On the other hand millions do not know what their ignorance and rejection is storing up for them. We wish we could hold them all in love.

For more on Christmas Day, see Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body

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