Every year, once the preparations are over, the presents are opened, and we can catch our breath, Mike and I are always surprised to make two discoveries: First, we can’t believe how busy we have been for the entire season of Advent — it’s been crazy. And second, we can’t believe how many of the people around us just dive right back into the busyness of their regular life and don’t take time to savor that whole Season of Christmas that we have been preparing for for an entire month. Christmas isn’t simply one exhausting day: it’s a season. Christmas lasts for twelve days. It extends from December 25 until January 6. Surely some time should be set aside for reflection on the whole meaning of Christmas during this period. As Thomas Merton reminds us, “Christmas is not merely a day like every other day. It is a day made holy and special by a sacred mystery. It is not merely another day in the weary round of time. [On Christmas] eternity enters into time, and time, sanctified is caught up into eternity.” We should take time to reflect on this during the Christmas season.
When Luke tells the story of how Mary and Joseph went to crowded Bethlehem for census registration, he simply reports that Mary went into labor and “gave birth to her firstborn son” in some sort of shed or stable (Lk 2:1-7). We talk with our children about how this birth must have been, and in our homes we set up little nativity sets and fill mangers with a piece of straw for every good deed in Advent until the time has come to let the plastic Little Lord Jesus lay down His wee head. But when the apostle John tells the story of this birth he tells how “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14).
It is a Christmas story that John is telling in his wonderful Prologue to the Gospel of John, John 1:1-18. But the way John tells it, this story is a great and wondrous mystery. As Bobby Gross writes in Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God ” As John spells out in the Prologue to his Gospel, in speaking of the Word, he is speaking of God, the Creator of all that is, the source of light and life, the one full of glory. This Word took on flesh, this God became human. How do we apprehend such a mystery? How do we articulate it? … Throughout the centuries, beginning with John, writers have explored the mystery and paradox of this divine enfleshment, this incarnation, through the language of poetry.” Consider these excerpts from poems:
Him who dwells beyond the worlds, the Virgin bore today. Him who bounds the universe, Earth shelters in a cave. (St. Romanos, “The Melodist,” Syrian, sixth century)
Blessed mother, by God’s gift, the One who is the highest of all powers, the One who holds the world in His hand, was cloistered in your womb. (Hymn from The Prymer, European, fifteenth century)
Today you see in a stable the Word speechless, Greatness in smallness, Immensity in blankets. Such wonders! … He who had no beginning, His being of Time begins; the Creator, as a creature, is now subject to our griefs. Such wonders! (Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, “Carol 3”, Mexican, seventeenth century)
This air … Minds me in many ways of her who not only gave God’s infinity dwindled to infancy welcome in womb and breast, birth, milk, and all the rest … (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe,” English, nineteenth century)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not comprehended it … The true light that enlightend every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not. He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God, who were born. not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father… And from His fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known. (John 1:1-18)
Bobby Gross writes: “For all their longing and waiting for a messiah to come, the Jews had little notion of what would actually take place in the plan of God. How could they? Certainly God could choose and by HIs Spirit anoint some person to set His people free, but for God Himself to become human, for Spirit to be enbodied? It was inconceivable. Only in light of the resurrection does the enormity of the Incarnation begin to be clear.
“The apostles wrote gropingly of it. The earliest theologians wrestled to formulate it. The first liturgists wove it into rituals of worship. Poet after poet has sought to say it. But even with our long retrospective view, this mystery borders on inconceivable to us. And well it should.” It is this that we should take time to ponder during the Twelve Days of Christmas.
When we were much younger, Mike and I were pastors of a congregation in Texas: St. Andrew Lutheran Church of Hurst Texas. How we loved that congregation! And we loved Hurst, a community smack in the middle of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. But the one thing that made us crazy about that area was that the day after Christmas, the curbs were full of Christmas trees. By the third day after Christmas, every shred of Christmas was taken down. Here in the Philadelphia area you can tell that there are a lot of people who grew up as liturgical Christians! In this area, most of the outside lights and most of the Christmas trees in the houses stay up for a while after Christmas — and lots of families keep everything looking Christmassy for the full twelve days. I am certainly one who leaves all the decorations up until Epiphany (January 6). You need to give yourself time to enjoy the lights and to think on the enormity of what God did for us at Christmas. In the Twelve Days, enjoy the mystery; contemplate the unthinkable! I find it magical to sit in our still-decorated living room after the working day and all the evening appointments are over, with all the lights off but those on the tree and around the windows, listening to a CD of soft, Christmas jazz, and reflecting on the mystery of the incarnation.
I remember the year Mike said, “Mandy, you don’t have to take down the Christmas decorations until you’re tired of them.” We still lived in Texas back in those days; the kids hadn’t been born yet. So I didn’t take them down. And I didn’t take them down. And I didn’t take them down. And time passed, and I still wasn’t tired of the Christmas decorations. And it came to be Groundhog Day (known to liturgists as Candlemas — February 2) and my house was STILL decorated. But I noticed that the ornaments on my (fake) tree were getting dusty. So that week we took down the tree and all the decorations. (But I still wasn’t tired of them.) So NOW, I take down Christmas on the day after Epiphany, even though in my heart I’m SO not ready to say goodbye to Christmas. During the Twelve Days, I do take time to sit by the tree and contemplate “Greatness in smallness, Immensity in blankets”. I hope you do too. It’s a gift God gives you.
The hymns for this Sunday, the Second Sunday after Christmas, will help you do just that.
The Opening Hymn is Angels from the Realms of Glory. “Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth; Once you sang creation’s story, now proclaim Messiah’s birth: Come and worship. come and worship, Worship Christ the newborn king. // All creation, join in praising God, the Father, Spirit, Son, Evermore your voices raising to the eternal Three in One. Come and worship, come and worship, Worship Christ the newborn king.”
The Hymn of the Day is Let Our Gladness Have No End — which always reminds me that given druthers, I think I would leave Christmas up year round. (Which would be bad.) But this Bohemian carol captures the mystery of Christmas: “Into flesh is made the Word. Hallelujah! He our refuge and our Lord. Hallelujah! On this day God gave us Christ His Son to save us, Christ His Son to save us.”
The Distribution Hymn for this Sunday is Once in Royal David’s City which also touches on the mystery of Christmas: “He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all, and His shelter was a stable and His cradle was a stall; with the poor and meek and lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.” This is something to meditate on.
The Recessional Hymn is Michael’s favorite Christmas hymn: Cold December Flies Away. This utterly mystical hymn is saturated with the mystery of Christmas: ” Cold December flies away at the rose-red splendor. April’s crowning glory breaks while the whole world wonders at the holy unseen pow’r of the tree which bears the flow’r. On the blessed tree blooms the reddest flow’r. On the tree blooms the rose here in love’s own garden, full and strong in glory. // In the hopeless time of sin shadows deep had fallen. All the world lay under death. Eyes were closed in sleeping. But, when all seemed lost in night, came the sun whose golden light brings unending joy, brings the endless joy of our hope, highest hope, of our hope’s bright dawning, Son beloved of heaven. // Now the bud has come to bloom, and the world awakens. In the lily’s purest flower dwells a wondrous fragrance. And it spreads to all the earth from the moment of its birth; and its beauty lives. In the flow’r it lives, in the flow’r, and it spreads in its heavenly brightness sweet perfume delightful.” Why isn’t this marvelous hymn the Hymn of the Day with all its gorgeous imagery and dense theology? Because “Let Our Gladness Have No End” is too short to be a Recessional, that’s why.
Between now and January 6 (Epiphany) PLEASE do take some time to be quiet and to think just a bit about what God did when He became incarnate for our sakes; God the Son endured the cross so that our sins should be forgiven. Oh Wondrous Love, what have you done? Please don’t go from busyness to busyness without stopping to think on these mysteries. I’ll see you at worship on Sunday!