The Awkward Days of Christmas

[In an effort to publish here more regularly, to increase traffic, and hopefully to start conversations, I will now regularly post my weekly parish newsletter as well as my sermons. Please let me know what you think.]

This weekend, we celebrate our patronal festival—the Feast of the Epiphany—and with it, draw our Christmas celebrations to a close. I confess that I am ambivalent about Christmas time. And no, while I deplore the ever new lows people can plumb as they pursue material excess, I’m not talking about the shopping. For myself, I worry far more about temptations to sentimentality and nostalgia than to crass materialism.

My Christmas, for example, is never complete until I see Alastair Sim reprise his role as Ebenezer Scrooge. It always involves at least one extended family meal. And of course, my brothers and I share memories, some of which that predate us, about our grandparents, uncles and aunts. I have a ball seeing my kids learn the stories as they sit with their cousins. I have no idea what your favorite Christmas memories are. I hope, like me, you have had good opportunity to indulge them this year.

But the temptation for me—and perhaps for you?—is that these wonderful experiences will move from being some of the trappings and rich decorations that come with Christmas, to being the core. They become Christmas.

Christmas, however, rightly exceeds all of those things. It is higher, deeper, and wider for Christmas is about the entry of God into history. It is about the incarnation of God as Jesus of Nazareth. It is about the God’s taking up of human nature, as a human individual, in order to heal, rescue and redeem the creatures he loves.

So, today, I want to commend to you the awkward parts of the Christian calendar that fall during the 12 days of Christmas. Remembering them helps me keep Jesus at the centre of my celebrations for they pry my gaze away from the sentimental and nostalgic and direct it again toward the Lord. St. Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26 and The Holy Innocents, Dec. 28 remind us of the cost of discipleship in a world that, while being redeemed, remains fallen, in thrall to powers hostile to the reign of God. The Name of Jesus, Jan 1 (at least when it goes by its older name, the Memorial of the Circumcision of Jesus), reminds us that this story is one that is at several key places, bloody.

Even on the Epiphany, we are reminded that of the four kings who sought “the child and his mother,” Herod was the one who truly grasped the significance of the birth of the King of the Jews. If the King of the Jews had been born, then Herod was King no longer. And Herod would not limit the reach of his violence in order to remain on his throne.

As very realistic reminders that “this is the world God has chosen to love,” (Flannery O’Connor), these days are not intended to rob us of our Christmas joy, but to deepen it, by pointing us to its true source. To the God who so loved this world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life. They make our Christmases authentically Merry.

One thought on “The Awkward Days of Christmas

  1. Attractive commendation of “the awkward parts of the Christian calendar.” Thanks.

    Effectively, I’ve found it comes down to actually having these services and gathering the disparate parts of the season into focus by trajectory through it. Of the two, the trajectory is the easier to accomplish by reinforcing Theophany/Epiphany as the endpoint. Returning the contribution of the awkward parts is a long-term project of prayer and personal readiness to give up time.

    This year our new priest surprised our parish council by indicating his willingness to serve, not only Compline & Divine Liturgy on Christmas Eve, but also the Synaxis of the Mother of God on the 26th and the Feast of St. Stephen on the 27th. People were edged out of their routine in the awareness that The Blessed Virgin is our patron but didn’t bite for the full three. Father received some support for eventual full uptake and everyone else was given opportunity to reflect on that possibility. Likewise, Divine Liturgy for the Circumcision of Our Lord & Feast of St. Basil was well attended but no one would (or could, having already made commitments) go for Vespers New Year’s Eve. This has been more than a decade coming, the fruit of the work of two brave priests, faithful laity (supportive cradle and energetic converts), a bishop pastorally open to Christ, and a prepared priest. All of these dispositions and circumstances only became such by prayer through time.

    Parish culture matters. It takes time and prayerful care to build.

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