“Why did the good people have to die?” The question came from my 10-year old daughter’s mouth as I walked out of the movie theater with my family recently. It’s not really one of those easy questions to answer in the brief, 8-minute drive home. I wish she would have asked if we could go for ice cream, or if she and her siblings could stay up late before bedtime. Instead, we wrestled through that one as a family, trying not to extinguish all of her youthful hope, but helping her to see that sometimes, sadly––and tragically––death can come to those who are good and innocent. Which is exactly the focus of today, December 28, better known as The Fourth Day of Christmas in the 12 Day celebration, also known as Holy Innocents’ Day, or the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Before you roll your eyes, or are tempted to skip along to the next post in your feed, let me explain a little of the story behind the day. While fruitcakes, Elves on the Shelf, and Santa seem to be getting a lot of press at Christmas, the main player in the story has always been Jesus. When he was born in a manger in Bethlehem, a star appeared in the sky, so brilliant and bright and unique that it caught the attention of some wisemen from the East (most likely in the area of Babylon, also known as modern day Iraq). Knowing this meant the birth of a new kind of king, the wisemen took the long journey west. The only problem: King Herod (the Great) was king of that land in the east, and he didn’t think the country big enough for two kings. We know about Herod from many historical sources, not least the architectural footprint he left behind in Israel (examples: the Temple in Jerusalem, the city and seaport at Caesarea Maritama, the desert fortress of Masada, many palaces like Herodium, and so much more). He was a ruthless ruler who killed his own family members out of fear they would try to usurp his power. So, in reality, a baby (like Jesus) born in Bethlehem should have posed no real threat to him. Yet, he acted with his usual ferocity and ordered––to our utter horror––the senseless killing of “all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16, NIV). Thus, it is because of the innocence of those children that this day is termed Holy Innocents’ Day, out of respect for those who died at Herod’s command. And yet, again, my daughter’s question hits us square in the face: “Why did the good people have to die?” And that’s the (mysterious) beauty of what we celebrate during Christmas. That through the birth, life, and death (+ resurrection) of Jesus, we don’t have to fear. Cancer does NOT get the last word. Evil is NOT the last one standing. I’ll toast to that any day of the week, especially on the Fourth Day of Christmas!
Friends, Romans, countrymen… lend me your ears (and eyes)! By all accounts, and if my math is correct, we are only 25% of the way through the 12 Days of Christmas. Which should be good news for those who love this time of the year and hate to see it pass too quickly. According to tradition, the 12 Days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day (Dec. 25) and end on January 5 (which is referred to as Twelfth Night, as all you Shakespeare lovers will find familiar). Thus, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, the celebration of Jesus’ birth continues, and merriment should abound, even now. Keep playing (and singing) the familiar carols and songs. But, there’s a natural question to be asked: when did people start celebrating the birth of Jesus? As some parts of the story are familiar to us, we know Jesus was born in a backwoods part (Bethlehem, near Jerusalem) of the Roman Empire of the 1st Century AD (CE). Yet, it wasn’t until the 4th Century (300s AD) that Christianity became accepted in the Roman world, helped tremendously when Emperor Constantine himself became a Christian in 311 AD, followed closely by the Edict of Milan (in 313 AD), which gave Christians proper standing within the Empire, finally free of the fear of persecution. There is then record of the first Christmas being officially celebrated in the Roman Empire in 336 AD. Some will say that December 25th was chosen as the date of Christmas because it was also the timing of the Winter Solstice, as well as the natural substitute for the Roman pagan festival which celebrated the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus. Yet, there is evidence in writings as early as 204 AD as to the choice of December 25, well before Christianity was legal and before Christians even thought to overtake a popular pagan celebration. As St. Augustine aptly proclaims: “We hold this day [Dec. 25] holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.” Alas… Perspective is everything, don’t you think? May you find some perspective during these 12 Days of Christmas. Peace (pax) be with you.
On this day, December 26, my true love is supposed to bring me two turtle doves, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me other than the moment in Home Alone 2 when Mr. Duncan from Duncan’s Toy Chest gives a two-turtle-dove ornament to Kevin McCallister. So what really happens on the 2nd Day of Christmas in the old school, liturgical, church calendar? Well, in a lot of the world (especially those countries with ties to the Commonwealth of Great Britain, like Canada), this day is known as Boxing Day––which seems rather appropriate because of all the boxes I need to dispose of after Christmas day (though the true Boxing Day tradition extends back to the early 19th century when certain members of society expected to receive a “Christmas box”). [Speaking of Canada, my favorite recording of the 12 Days of Christmas song was done by The Canadian Brass (#NerdAlert, I know… but go ahead and Google it).] But, before there was a Boxing Day, or the cute song that mentions two turtle doves, the 2nd Day of Christmas commemorates Saint Stephen’s Day (which gets a good mention in that other Christmas song… “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen”). St. Stephen is honored as the first Christian martyr (you can read his story quickly in chapters 6-7 of the New Testament book of Acts), and his feast day of December 26 is all about serving and giving gifts to the poor. Which seems rather fitting since Jesus, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, brought great attention to the poor and marginalized all around him throughout his life, and went so far as to challenge his followers to do the same. Thus, the gifts we have been given, the blessings we have received, are all for a purpose. We have been #BlessedToBeABlessing… to others.
There are just a few remaining minutes of December 25th where I am in the world, and as I was putting my kids to bed this evening––fresh from their fourth round of opening gifts with friends and family over the past 72-hours––they were bemoaning the fact that they would have to wait another 365 days for Christmas. And, in a lot of ways, they’re right. We look forward to Christmas for such a long time, especially with Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping, as well as the helpful expectancy found in Advent’s preparation, but Christmas comes and goes just as fast as any other 24-hour period. Which doesn’t seem fair. However, I’ve got some good news: today, December 25, is just the First Day of Christmas. No, I’m not going to break into song about my true love (who would have to produce 364 gifts over the 12-day period, which seems a bit over the top if you ask me). But, since there are 12 Days in the traditional Christmas time on the liturgical (fancy word for church) calendar, there’s still a lot of Christmas celebrating to do… so don’t take down the tree too quickly, or the lights you’ve hung on the roof. Keep the egg nog handy, and the cinnamon flavored candle burning. Sure, the stores around us will quickly begin announcing “after Christmas sales,” but they’ve got it all wrong: Christmas has just begun! Don’t stop the celebration. These are the darkest days of the year––literally, since the days are short and the nights are long––so look for light and good news and warmth in the story of Christmas that first showed up many, many years ago. And remember, it’s only the First Day of Christmas. The party goes on!