Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Third Day of Christmas

We are living into Christmastide this year, though of course it is shaped by the reality of work and the tasks of living: Josh's schedule this week swings from 8-5 shifts to 12-9 shifts, and so far today I have not only sat in quiet contemplation but also scheduled appointments, paid all the bills, argued with my insurance company, and hung a load of wet laundry to dry. I have work to do this afternoon, writing to a deadline, and I struggle to quiet myself and find the pace of thinking that such work requires.

I am unsettled by thinking about Christmas's twelve days, about the stretch that carries us from Christmas, the celebration of a Messiah's birth, to Epiphany or Three King's Day, the celebration of the arrival and worshipful giving of those traveling magi guided by a star. Yesterday, the 26th (or in Orthodox countries today, the 27th) is St. Stephen's Day: just after Christmas, we honor the first person martyred for preaching the Good News. Tomorrow, the 28th, is the Feast of the Innocents, when we remember those Jewish babes killed in Jesus's hometown because a politician couldn't take the threat of a usurper: because power so gripped him that he thought it necessary to murder still-nursing boys.

Our religious Christmas celebrations are often sentimental, glowy cooing over a precious baby who doesn't make a peep (Sarah Styles Bessey offers a beautiful contemplation on an alternative view of the incarnation). But I sometimes wonder, how much water did Mary have to clean that little newborn, and was it warm? How long did it take for that infant to realize he was a fugitive? I do think the sentimental, idyllically-lit images of baby Jesus serve a purpose: they remind us of the paradox of an all-powerful God manifested in a tiny human being, the sort of human being many of us have an inexplicable and elemental urge to coo at and cuddle. This is a great mystery, and a beautiful one.

But the church holidays that follow Christmas Day, that take their place within the twelve days that extend the celebration of the Word's arrival on earth in flesh and bone, are hard to render glowingly precious. We celebrate Stephen, that preacher stoned for his counter-cultural message. And we remember those babies, whose death was the result of human lust for power and control, of a political ruler whose interest in maintaining his own system made him think nothing of ordering the deaths of infants from minority families oppressed by Roman rule. The horror of these stories--of martyrdom, of babies as political casualties--reminds us of the reasons Jesus came: to bring life, to show another way beyond frantic self-interest, to break the cycle of violence and death.

I wonder sometimes, looking at the world around me on dark winter days, how long the violence and death will continue: I wonder as I see similar cases, literal and figurative martyrs for unpopular causes, Middle-Eastern babes killed "accidentally" in wars that have a great deal to do with political power and self-interest. I sit on this third day of Christmas with my tea gone cold and my head throbbing, skimming the headlines, wondering at tales of weeping mothers.

And then I am confronted with the radical nature of redemption, the way forgiveness and total change comes at times even to those who in my stilted vision of justice and mercy I don't want to see forgiven or changed, not if I'm honest. For who held the coats of the men who stoned Stephen, doubtless egging them on? Who stood by and celebrated the death of that martyr?

It was Saul who held those coats, who hated Christians, who hunted them down. It was Saul who was confronted with the grace of God so powerful that he left everything to change his tune and even his name. It was Saul, renamed Paul, who penned those words in his pastoral letter to the Corinthians: love never fails.


  1. Christmas, as you've explained it with the gloss & glow of self-interest removed, should be viewed as historic events causing mankind to ponder and change-much.

    Thanks again (and always) for your thought provoking blog!

    Love, Dad

  2. As I re-read my previous post it seemed a bit off, lacking mention of the miraculous events preceding (prophesied hundreds of years prior), engulfing (angelic visits, virgin birth) & following (water to wine, fishes & bread from a boy's lunch to feed thousands, healings, etc.) the historic accounts of Christmas.

    As others have said, true history is His-story.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Dad. I love how you mention small concrete details that add up to mystery and history-changing.