Saturday, December 26, 2015

Observing the Twelve Days of Christmas

The 12 Days of Christmas (from Christmas Day to Epiphany) cover a great deal of spiritual ground. In addition to being an extended meditation on the Incarnation of Christ, the days immediately following Christmas Day visit the issue of witness (the Greek word for this being the same root from which the English word martyr comes) in an almost encyclopedic manner:

  • St. Stephen (Dec. 26) was the first martyr, witnessing to the death both in will and deed.
  • St. John (Dec. 27) was a martyr in will, but not in deed. Tradition says he died of natural causes, but was beaten and exiled for his faith. Thus, he was ready to surrender his life for Christ, but was not ultimately called to do so.
  • The Holy Innocents (Dec. 28) were martyred in deed (mistaken as they were for the Christ-child by Herod’s soldiers) but not by will. They simply might have been Jesus; for this they and their families suffered. The Church still counts them as martyrs, so deeply does it respect their witness.
  • The lesser commemorations of St. Thomas Beckett (Dec. 29), whose witness against a power-hungry monarch ultimately cost him his life (a martyr in will and deed), and St. Sylvester on Dec. 31. He was the Bishop of Rome when Christianity was officially “tolerated” by Constantine the Great, and was faced with the dramatically different mission situation of the Church after the great persecutions. He died a confessor (a faithful witness to Christ who died peacefully, but who had been prepared to die for Christ prior to Constantine).
The 12 Days of Christmas may include, depending on the day of the week upon which it falls, one or two Sundays. These Sundays offer continued reflection on the meaning of Christ's coming into the world. While the culture around us consumes Christmas in one day and moves quickly on to New Year's Eve and beyond, we savor the time and go deeper into the mystery.

On January 1 we come to one of the Feasts of Our Lord: the Feast of the Holy Name, when Jesus was formally named and recognized as a member of the Jewish community in the circumcision ritual eight days after his birth. This commemoration, along with the Feasts of the Presentation in the Temple (Feb. 2) and the Transfiguration (Aug. 6) are so significant that if they fall on a Sunday, they take precedence over that Sunday’s regular readings and prayers.

With Holy Name Day, the Octave (eight day period) of Christmas is completed. The remaining days of Christmastide fill the space leading to the Feast of the Epiphany, which brings to a conclusion this beautiful season, returning us to "Ordinary Time" until we approach Lent.

Episcopalians are bidden to keep the full 12 days of Christmas. This may include:

  • No fasting on Fridays
  • Keeping Christmas decorations up during the season (taken down at Epiphany)
  • Entertaining guests and offering Christmas hospitality
  • Varying one’s life in such a way that the 12 days of Christmas are a time of rest and rejoicing, rather than frantic busyness.
  • Sending out Christmas cards/letters during Christmas rather than ahead of time
  • Here is a good site for learning more about how to keep the 12 Days!
If we have kept Advent as a time of preparation and anticipation, we will not be so tired of feasting and celebrating that we cannot keep Christmas for its full duration.

Together with saying the Daily Office from the Prayer Book and attending Christmas liturgies at church, these patterns can help us experience the richness of this season, bringing us into deep contact with the joy and mystery of the Incarnation. When experienced first-hand, the Anglican way of living Christmastide gives coherence and substance to this season in a fragmented and consumerized world. May you experience the fullness of these 12 Days in worship and contemplation. Merry Christmas!

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