Don Follis: 12 Days Of Christmas Call Us To Faithful Living

On the morning of Dec. 26, I saw a Christmas tree lying on its side outside someone's house. I wondered if it had been there since 12:01 a.m. With lots of people, the Christmas excitement builds to a climax on Dec. 25, and then it stops, abruptly.

That was pretty much my dad, bless his heart. He was the king of picking up wrapping paper, ribbon and discarded boxes. On Christmas morning, he kept huge black plastic bags beside the couch, waiting for gifts to be unwrapped. Once the paper was off, he pounced, grabbing it, stuffing it in those bags and puffing like he was in a fight. It was similar to the way he picked up leaves in the yard. He even stepped inside the plastic bags, stomping down the wrapping paper, the same way he stomped down the leaves, making room for more.

If you said, "Dad, please, just cool your jets and relax," well, he was relaxing. If you said, "Hold on a second there, dad. I love this paper. I want to keep it," well, you'd mess up his game. When the paper and ribbon was all picked up, and the carpet vacuumed, then dad, with one big clap of his hands, would say, "Now that's what I call a Merry Christmas."

With all due respect to my dad who mostly was playful with his wrapping-paper-pick-up-game, I have spent the last two weeks celebrating and pondering the 12 days of Christmas, mostly through various readings and prayers. While many western churches give Advent (the four weeks prior to Christmas) its proper due, the custom of celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, starting on Christmas Day and ending Jan. 6, didn't fully make it across the pond.

I centered my thoughts on three traditional Christian feasts (dating back to the 5th century) that fall during the 12 days of Christmas. All three feasts reflect ways the mystery of the birth of Christ works itself out among the faithful, sending them to be witnesses of the light of Christ into a dark world.

Dec. 26, the second day of Christmas, is the feast of St. Stephen. Stephen is called the first Christian martyr. The juxtaposition of Jesus' birth and the Feast of St. Stephen, celebrating the martyrdom of Stephen, is compelling and stark. On Dec. 25, Jesus takes on flesh, descending to the earth. But on Dec. 26, Stephen lays aside his flesh and ascends to heaven.

On Christmas Day, we sing, "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see," while the very next day we celebrate Stephen's faithful witness (Acts 7), giving up his flesh, receiving the crown of blood (as the Church Fathers say) and ascending to heaven as he prays, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."

Central to celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas is carving out the time to feel the tension of the angels celebrating the birth of the Christ Child, saying, "Glory to God in the highest," on the one hand, while on the other giving room to ponder the angels receiving Stephen into their company. Jesus empties himself, taking on flesh. Stephen empties himself, giving up his flesh, witnessing to Christ by the ultimate gift of his own life.

On Dec. 27, the church historically has celebrated the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. Traditionally, John is the only one of the 12 disciples who did not die a martyr. While known for his faithfulness during Jesus' darkest hour prior to his crucifixion and for staying with Jesus' mother at the foot of the cross, this feast celebrates John's witness to the Incarnation through his words, "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." (John 1:14)

The Feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28 is the day the faithful remember the children murdered by Herod. The Church Fathers always have taught that these innocent little boys died for Christ's sake. Thus, on the fourth day of Christmas we consider the agony of all who suffer and die through human injustice. The Church is clear that if Christ did not come for the most innocent, then His coming surely was in vain. The Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us that we, too, like the baby boys murdered by King Herod, are saved by the sheer mercy and grace of God, not by our own doing or knowing.

The 12 days of Christmas came to an end yesterday, Jan. 6, with The Feast of the Epiphany, the coming of the Magi. With the Christmas season reaching its end point on the Church calendar, we were reminded that whether we are called to martyrdom, to speak prophetically or simply to faithful living in the joys and sorrows of life, we all live our days witnessing to the truth that "The Word became flesh and lived among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at [email protected], and you can follow him on Twitter [email protected]

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