With the feast of the Epiphany, the presentation of Jesus to the whole wider world, the Christmas Season nears its end each year. This year, please allow me a final look back at Christmas week to reflect on the liturgies assigned for it. What is the message in this lineup of celebrations? It’s not exactly sentimental or endearing.
Think for a moment about Mass on the day after Christmas. We come into a church or chapel decorated for Christmas and still quietly resonant with the alleluias, the glorious music, the images of farm animals and angels, the red-white-green-and-gold beauty everywhere, and the warm memories of joy, blessings, and gratitude for the birth of Jesus, so vulnerably one of us. The focus of the liturgy for December 26th is the cruel and bloody martyrdom of Stephen the deacon, the first to die for his faith in Jesus, praying for his killers as he loses consciousness and dies – with a young man named Saul standing by approvingly and ready to take leadership in stamping out this new faith group.
The next day, December 27th is a little more positive, but still not very Christmassy. In the gospel story chosen for this feast of St. John, we watch Mary Magdalene run to tell Peter and John that the tomb Jesus was laid in is empty. Then we get the almost childish account of their race to get to the tomb [and though it is written many years after the fact, John still wants us to know that he beat Peter but waited to let him go in first! Merry Christmas!]. The crucifixion was terrible; the empty tomb is mysterious.
On December 28th, we hear John in his first letter reminding us that we are sinners and we are lying to ourselves if we think we aren’t. But Jesus is still our advocate, expiation for our sins. In the gospel we get the frightening story of Joseph’s dream and the family’s resulting middle-of-the-night flight into Egypt to escape the murderous political jealousy and fear of Herod. Again we have painful death and the blood of all the 2-year-old boys of Bethlehem and its surroundings staining the streets and byways, leaving the hearts of mothers and fathers inconsolable.
December 29th features another martyr standing up to political power in defense of the Church, Thomas Becket. The gospel story of the presentation of the infant Jesus to God in the temple ends with Simeon’s prediction to Mary that because of this child a sword of sorrow would pierce her heart.
The feast of the Holy Family, celebrated this year on December 30th, features his parents’ terrifying loss of Jesus when he decides to stay behind in Jerusalem without telling anyone. Family tensions on the threshold of the teenage years?
Finally December 31st takes us to a remembrance of the first pope after Constantine converted and declared the first major public recognition and freedom of worship for Christians. The reading from the first letter of John warns about all the Antichrists around. The closing of the Prologue of John’s gospel sounds amazingly ironic in light of the flow of this liturgical week:
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,
And we saw his glory,
The glory as of God’s only begotten son,
Full of grace and truth.
So what is this all about? Is it just the result of accidental feast day dating – or could it carry a more significant message? If we take it as a faith message, it is certainly a reminder of the cost of embracing Jesus as our Christ.
- Stephen’s Day: We must be prepared to suffer as Jesus did, forgiving our enemies, loving those inflicting our suffering and even causing our death. Saul’s presence and later evolution to Paul show the hope for redemption of their enemies that is in the spirit of Jesus.
- John: The main mission of followers of Christ is to bear witness to the risen Jesus. The empty tomb grounds our faith, a faith that must bear witness to the Truth.
- Holy Innocents: Because Jesus the Christ is such a threat to so many political and social power players, we must expect the suffering and death of many, many innocent, whether in the neighborhood around Bethlehem or in the war zones of our contemporary world.
- Thomas Becket: The birth of Jesus the Christ has serious implications for political leaders too, of what they must stand for and to whom they must stand up, even to the point of martyrdom. The sword piercing Mary’s heart is a powerful image of revolutionary hopes [recall the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55] treasured in people’s hearts will suffer as well.
- Holy Family: The normal struggles of family life too played their part in shaping Jesus and are important for our developing faith.
- Sylvester: There is a promise in this recollection of the first public recognition of and support for Christianity that the suffering and witnessing will eventually win out. But there is also an implicit warning that public acceptance and official affirmation can have a corrosive effect on the Word and Life Jesus came to proclaim. Constantine’s influence on the development of Christianity is without doubt a very mixed heritage.
This message is powerful and challenging. At this point, I find myself choosing to believe that it is purposeful, important Light being shed on the Way we are to enter and walk in the Ordinary Time of our lives. The birth of Jesus must not be allowed to become a sentimental, feel-good celebration and then forgotten until next year.
The birth of Jesus has made serious lifeblood, lifestyle, and life-mission demands on us. Let’s celebrate it throughout our lives for what it truly means.
James Hug, SJ