The season of Advent, I believe, is beginning to grow in the popular Christian consciousness in America. More and more resources are being made available for observing Advent – or at least I’m finding more and more – , and I’ve been seeing a rise in individuals and churches using social media to [sometimes not so] gently remind the cultures around them that it’s not Christmas ’till it’s Christmas. Whether from a renewed interest in returning to or rediscovering the ancient and venerable rhythms and way of life for scores of Christians before them, or as an intentional act of resistance in the face of obscene consumerism and “seasonal” marketeering, people have been observing Advent, not Christmas, during Advent. And as you know when you wait for something good, it’s much better than it would have been if you had snatched it before its time came. And so it is with waiting for Christmas. And the way to wait during Advent is to sing the proper songs and hymns, read the proper scriptures and prophecies, and to fast and pray – pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” So that when the Word-made-flesh is born anew on December 25, the Feast of the Nativity, we’re not bored with it.
But what about December 26? It seems that it’s still Christmas, because the same people gently reminding you via social media that Advent is not Christmas are now reminding you that Christmas lasts twelve days. How, though, does Christmas last twelve days, and what does that even mean?
The singular drive of the Advent season is looking forward to and preparing for the coming of Christ (both his first and his second coming); but is the singular drive of the Christmas season to say “He came”? And there’s a certain satisfaction in flying the counter-cultural “It’s Not Christmas Yet” banner, I think because the “yet” just serves the cause of expectation; but is there the same satisfaction in flying the “It’s Still Christmas” banner without something clear to look forward to? And if the way to observe Advent is marked out by hymns, scriptures, fasting, and prayer, what marks out the way to observe twelve days of Christmas?
If you answer Christmas hymns, scriptures about how Christ did come, feasting, and prayers of praise and thanksgiving, you’d be right. Because Christmastide (the twelve days of Christmas) is the answer to the season of waiting and longing. But the season of Christmas, like the very arrival of God incarnate two-thousand years ago, is also paradoxical and, if we’re honest, confusing. After the long awaited, much anticipated Christmas day comes and goes, the Church calendar serves up the commemoration of the martyrdom of St. Stephen the following day. (What)? After that we move on to St. John’s day, the only of Jesus’ disciples not killed off, but rather boiled alive and then exiled. Three days after Christmas day is the remembrance of the “Holy Innocents,” the children slain by Herod upon his learning of the possibility that a rival king had been born. And for many, the commemoration of the slain Archbishop Thomas Becket comes next.
The theme of martyrdom is inescapable in the days following Christmas, but why is this? Why is the first martyr of the Church remembered the day after Christmas?; the oldest disciple, used and abused, after that?; and the mass killing of innocent children after that? If days on the Church calendar point to realities, then the apparent conclusion would seem to be that the birth of Jesus leads to suffering and dying. This, I believe, is correct. The question is, what kind of suffering and dying?
The victorious kind. Everything that Christ did, he did as both man and God – God redeeming man’s life, as a man, on behalf of men. His entire earthly life wrenched the life and work of mankind from the cold dead grip of the ancient curse, including death itself. When he died, he killed death, because of course it couldn’t hold him. His eternal life, made one with the life and flesh that he took from his willing handmaiden and glorious mother Mary, he offered to the world, for the life of the world. And when his servants follow in the way that he opened, they find that suffering and death itself have already been conquered ahead of them, and are a joy and a priceless reward the second they are tasted.
Nine months after the marvelous Annunciation, God-With-Us was seen by the world for the first time, and so began our redemption. The shadows of doubt, confusion, and ambiguity lingering in that dark, smelly stable on the night of Christ’s birth are often transposed into our own hearts, but the transformed lives of the Saints and Martyrs strengthen our hearts and remind us that all is conquered ahead of us if we walk in the true Way. That’s why we celebrate, not mourn, them. Their victories belong in the footsteps of the Incarnation, and so they are placed in Christmastide – our bright light in the bleak midwinter. For the remainder of Christmastide, going all the way to Epiphany on January 6, it would be appropriate to think about the birth of God in the world, and in our own hearts, and where we are willing to follow him as he begins the journey of his life (and the Church calendar) into the Temple (Feast of the Presentation), to the Jordan River (Epiphany), into the desert and then toward Jerusalem (Lent), and to the Cross (Holy Week). If we follow him that far, he will show us the way through death and bring us into Resurrection (Easter).
Eastern Orthodox Kontakion for the Feast of St. Stephen-
Yesterday the Master appeared in the flesh among us,
today His servant departs from the flesh.
Yesterday the King was born,
and today His servant is stoned to death;
for His sake, the divine Protomartyr Stephen is perfected through martyrdom.
Viewed from the perspective of one who has no faith, Jesus’ death was simply one example out of millions of an innocent man (or woman) tortured and executed by an oppressive regime which had to use terror to maintain power. A ghastly injustice, of course, but just one injustice in an unending litany of injustices perpetrated on man by man.
Viewed from the perspective of faith, however, Jesus’ death is our liberation. The cross which repulses the ‘natural man’ becomes supremely attractive to the one who has faith. Instead of fleeing from something that appears, at first, to be a horror, the person of faith longs to pick up her (his) cross and follow Jesus up the Mount of Calvary.
God’s ultimate glory is in that singular moment of infinite self-giving. The Annunciation, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Passion of Jesus — all windows into the Mystery of the Incarnation, God made known, God with us. That’s OUR mystery, that’s OUR truth!!
The root of martyr is ‘witness’. Martyrs are witnesses to the Truth. Jesus came into the world to be witness to the Truth. These stories of St. Stephen, and the Massacred Innocents, and of Thomas Becket are examples for us of what witness means.
Christmas Joy isn’t exactly the same as a new train set; but a shiny toy may be as close as the faithless can come to appreciating it.