Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Continues

Practically everyone can comfortably sing along with The 12 Days of Christmas. It can get confusing towards the end, as there are different versions in which the pipers piping, drummers drumming, ladies dancing, and lords a-leaping arrive in different order. But, other than that, it's an easy carol to join in and actually invites popular participation. It also reminds us that the real Christmas continues for quite some time after December 25.

For some that may mean taking vacation time as if one were still in school. For others it may mean a frenzy of bargain-hunting at post-Christmas sales that rival the pre-Christmas shopping binge. For still others, it may mean continued catching up with family and friends one didn't get to see on Christmas Day itself. There are, in short, many ways to acknowledge that Christmas continues.

On this 2nd Day of Christmas, the Church holds up of to us the figure of Stephen, one of the "Deacons" of the Apostolic church, the first martyr, whose martyrdom is edifyingly recounted in Acts 6-8. This is the famous "feast of Stephen" on which the events recounted in the carol Good King Wenceslaus take place. Saint Stephen today, Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist tomorrow, and the Holy Innocents the next day form a unique post-Christmas triduum. In a typical example of a certain style of medieval symbolic interpretation which may strike us moderns as much too forced, Saint Bernard saw three different expressions of martyrdom on display this week - Stephen a martyr in both will and deed, John a martyr only in will, and the Holy Innocents martyrs only in deed. 

Not quite so forced is the connection drawn by Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe (468-533) between Christmas and Saint Stephen's Day: "Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier. Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin's womb and generously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven."

Obviously, Stephen never celebrated Christmas. But his life and death effectively exemplified how Christmas continues in the lives and deaths of the saints. Stephen's final words, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 8:60), uniquely unite his death with that of Jesus himself

Important as it may be in its own terms for us to continue Christmas, celebrating it seriously through at least Epiphany, it is even more important to continue Christmas all year long and all life long - not with trees and lights and carols and presents, obviously, but with the confident conviction of the shepherds, who made known the message that had been told them and who returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. What would be a better New year's resolution?

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