Almost everyone has heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas, if only by means of the song most of us learned in grammar school (I don’t think K-5/6 is called “grammar school” any more, but that’s okay, because many of them don't teach grammar any more).In any case, the term “Twelve Days” refers to the season of Christmas which stretches between The Nativity of our Lord (December 25, and commonly called Christmas day) and Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on January 6. The Twelve Days boast another six or seven feasts, or celebrations—most of them related to various saints.
Now, we Protestants (and United Methodists are lumped-in there, though with some qualifiers) do not observe all the festivals and celebrations that our Roman Catholic or Orthodox friends do. While we do observe the temporal cycle, the basic seasons of the Christian year—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost—we do not, as a rule, observe the sanctoral cycle (the “saints’ days”).
We observe the temporal cycle because it helps tell the story of Jesus, the times of his life—from the promise of his coming (Advent) to his birth (Christmas) as both King of the Jews and Savior of the world (Epiphany); to be King and Savior means he will suffer and die (Lent) but God will vindicate Jesus (Easter) and pour out the Holy Spirit on those who receive him (Pentecost).
The sanctoral cycle, though…well, let’s just say there are good reasons to bypass most of those days (though we do observe All Saints on November 1). That said, taking the detour we sometimes miss good stuff, important pieces of our history and lessons the saints and their days might teach.
I have found myself, this year, particularly interested in the feast days that fall immediately after the Nativity.
--December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen (“Good king Wenceslaus looked out…”). St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death outside Jerusalem for his witness to Christ.
--December 27 is the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. He is, by tradition, the only one of Jesus’ originals not to have died a violent death.
--December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The church remembers those children (and their weeping mothers) who died at the hand of murderous Herod who would stop at nothing to retain his power. He reminds us of all the “powers” in our own day who sacrifice their nation’s children for their own purposes, while the Innocents themselves remind us of those whose lives are taken on account the world’s idolatries and power-lust.
Notice: in the first “four days” of the Christmas season, the church’s celebrations alternate between light and darkness, life and death: Nativity, Stephen; John, the Holy Innocents. It is almost as if the church is saying, “This Child’s birth is not all sweetness and light; it is a matter of life and death.”
Hard to put a bathrobe or cardboard crown on some of these stories, which is not a bad thing to remember as we begin the new calendar year.
Still, if the sometimes and recurring word is dark and dreadful, the ever-answering and final word is always of light and joy. In spite of all, Joy to the World. JOY to the WORLD. Amen.