I have written before about the disappearance of the season of holy waiting that is Advent. In making it my intention to observe the Advent season, I cannot help but notice how quickly Christmas, once it comes, is unwrapped, cleared away, swept up, and put in storage for next year.
Whatever happened to the Twelve Days of Christmas?
Interestingly, many people employ that familiar old song as a countdown to Christmas, starting mid-December or so. But really, it is intended to begin on Christmas Day, with each day of gifts becoming more and more extravagant, for twelve days until . . . oh, what’s this? it ends on January 5, the day before Epiphany? You’d think someone had planned it that way!
It’s not really anyone’s fault in particular: many churches in America and around the world have detached themselves from the traditional liturgical calendar which marks seasons and days of remembrance within the life of the church itself. And many people outside the church celebrate Christmas–if they celebrate it at all–merely as a secular holiday of Santas and tinsel and party clothes and food. And stuff. Lots and lots of stuff wrapped up in bright paper. Credit card debt, five extra pounds, and a partridge in a pear tree. Everybody sing!!
For me, though, a Christmas disconnected from its historical, liturgical roots is a diminished, sorry thing, something made frivolous and fleeting. I don’t have time for that, me and my crazyplate life. I’d pack it up quickly, too, if that were all Christmas was about. Heck, I might not even bother with it to begin with!
But I do have time–will make time–for a central mystery of our faith. Mystery. Something hidden from view until God reveals it in its time. Like a beautifully-wrapped gift. Like a babe in the womb.
Frankly, twelve days is not long enough to wrap my head, or my heart, around this one: how the One who shaped the universe, who with a word sprang light and oceans and the grandeur of the stars and the struggling-for-breath mud of my little life into being, would choose to enter that life himself, walk alongside me.
My heart is not big enough to contain it. The days are too short and too few to speak of it. An eternity might suffice, but twelve days?
Well, we have to start somewhere.
So I’ve been writing a little each day, considering and reconnecting the gifts given in that much-loved carol to scripture, and to the extended observation of Christmas which the season–the mystery–deserves. Will you walk with me through Christmastide?
Christmas, Day 1–this day stands on its own!–NOW you may begin singing The Twelve Days of Christmas. We’ve enjoyed the partridge-ey one; now for the rest, one by one. Christmas teaches both patience and extravagance in love, no? Next up: two turtledoves!
Christmas, Day 2–“The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” Song of Solomon 2:12
Lovely to think about spring approaching, especially today when all is snow and ice. Lovely to think about singing at any time, but especially lovely to think of a “time of singing”, when song becomes speech, worship, loving, connection. Lovely to listen for the Beloved’s voice over the chaos and monkeymind.
Christmas, Day 3– ” . . . how often I have longed to gather you together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings . . . ” Luke 13:34
My dad raised chickens on our little farm in Arkansas–endlessly entertaining birds, which was good, since we had only two or three TV channels coming in over our aerial antenna! I could watch them for hours, and laugh my head off at their squabbles, competition for bugs (and the rooster’s attention), and clumsy attempts at flight.
Things got deadly serious in the chicken coop, though, when the shadows of wings passed overhead. A few sharp clucks, and all the little ones knew to run to Momma. She would hunker down and spread out her wings, and her brood would run underneath. One steely eye to the heavens, and the message was clear: “Don’t mess with my babies!”
I love images of God that include the feminine experience: babes at breast, cradled tenderly in the palm of His hand, the mother in the stable–weeping at the foot of the cross. Today’s image, though, is more fierce than tender, a mother to be reckoned with: the hen gathering her chicks for protection against imminent danger.
As we continue to celebrate Christmas, and approach a new year either with dread or with hope, we can know that God as mother hen is watching over us, offering us a place of refuge.
Christmas, Day 4–“Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them.” Luke 12:24
This one takes a bit of explanation. The 4th Day of Christmas line that we commonly sing–“four calling birds”–is actually a bit of a muddling over the years of the actual line, “four colly birds”. A colly bird is the colloquial name for the European blackbird–perhaps four of the four-and-twenty who will later be baked into pies? (Did I lose you right there?) There weren’t a whole lot of European blackbirds in Judea and points east back in the day, but there were many mentions of their larger cousins, the raven.
Ravens did not have a good reputation; because they are part of nature’s “clean-up crew” of carrion birds such as buzzards and vultures, they have often been considered omens of evil to come. So why would Jesus mention the raven at all?
Perhaps to emphasize that God is not just for the fortunate and lovely among us–the sparrows and the lilies, if you like. Each of us, no matter how commonplace or off-putting or unwelcome, has a purpose, and work to do. Even a baby born to nobodies, to common folk–an unwed teenage mother, a scared young carpenter in a barn. Even the raven was given holy purpose: Noah used one to seek out dry land, and God sent the raven to feed Elijah in exile.
God makes provision, makes a place at the table, for all. Should we not do the same, this 4th day of Christmastide?
To be continued . . .