Celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Crib to Cross
Continued from “Mass, Markets, and the Economy of Salvation”
At this most solemn time of year, Holy Mother Church urges us to recall the Nativity of the Lord at “Christ-Mass,” yet immediately thereafter she commemorates the martyrdom of St. Stephen. How come? Furthermore, why follow with the feast of St. John the Apostle, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and the domestic bliss of the Holy Family, all while looking to the horizon of the Epiphany and urging that we bear in mind our own Final Hour?
Juxtaposed against the story of the Birth of Christ, stories of martyrdom and persecuted innocence give new meaning to the old adage, It is in giving that we receive. “Giving” for the Christian at Christmastime means “total self-gift,” given and received at once in the inestimable gift of the Eucharist, the sacramental re-presentation of both Bethlehem and Calvary. During the Twelve Days of Christmas the liturgy’s cycle of commemorations presents a series of gifts to the faithful which, when opened, lead ever more deeply into the paradox of deep and authentic Christmas joy.
St. Stephen, Martyr: “Merry Christmas! Now, Back to the Cross.”1
Immediately following the Solemnity of the Nativity, the liturgy places before us the witness of St. Stephen, the first martyr, on December 26. Christ-like in his trial for “blaspheming” by proclaiming that Christ is the Lord, St. Stephen declares that he sees “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56; cf. Matthew 26:64). His profession of faith, a response to Christ’s total self-gift with his own complete gift of self, reduces St. Stephen to nothing, costing and winning him everything. Accepting loss of life itself, he proclaims, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59; cf. Luke 23:46). St. Stephen even prays for his persecutors as he falls asleep in Christ (Acts 7:60; cf. Luke 23:34). His life, lost for Christ’s sake, is saved in Christ (cf. Matthew 16:25).
During the Twelve Days of Christmas the liturgy’s cycle of commemorations presents a series of gifts to the faithful which, when opened, lead ever more deeply into the paradox of deep and authentic Christmas joy.
The application of St. Stephen’s witness to our own lives is presented in the preaching of the Lord himself in the day’s gospel reading. “Beware of men, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake…, but whoever endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:17-18, 22). If we are reluctant to do something even as simple as saying “Merry Christmas” in the markets, being shy to profess our faith in Christ in the public squares of our day, will we be bold enough to proclaim Christ in courts, before governors, with our very lives at stake? The greater professions of faith perfect and presuppose the lesser ones. Through the lectionary cycle the liturgy urges us to pray this day for the gift of final perseverance in Christian witness, that Christ may acknowledge us before his heavenly Father (Matthew 10:32).
St. John the Apostle and “The Love of St. John”
Appropriate for the tradition of blessing wine on St. John’s Day (see below), the first reading for the Feast of the Apostle John on December 27 emphasizes the mystery of the Incarnation, for we have heard, seen, looked upon, and even touched “What was from the beginning” (1 John 1:1-4), the Logos—the Word (cf. John 1:1-18). The gospel for the day tells the story of the Resurrection (John 20), an appropriate complement to the Feast of St. Stephen.
Altogether, these selections point to the place of the Incarnation and Resurrection in the mysterium fidei proclaimed during Mass after the consecration of the Most Precious Blood. Taken alongside the testimony of St. Stephen, the implication for us Christians is clear: Christian witness even unto death has a horizon beyond death itself, because Christ’s death has conquered death (1 Corinthians 15) and because the Christian’s share in the death of Christ makes it possible to live with him forever (Romans 6:5). Our foretaste of heaven is seen, looked upon, touched, and even tasted in the Mass.
Related analogously to the sensible signs of the liturgy, one Christmas tradition drawn from the life of St. John the Apostle is based on a legend in which he was said to have been impervious to a cup of poisoned wine, either because he blessed it before consuming it or because the poison left the cup in serpentine shape upon being blessed by the saint. From this story comes the tradition of blessing wine on the Feast of St. John, in some cases for use on the same day, in others for the distribution of the wine into multiple casks, and in still other instances for consumption by guests throughout the year.
The Holy Innocents and the Least Among Us
John’s message continues on the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 with the proclamation that “God is light” and that “in him there is no darkness” (1 John 1:5). The tradition of Christmas lights naturally comes to mind, since every light-in-darkness at Christmastime is symbolic of Christ our Light. Yet the reading from the First Letter of St. John goes on to implicate its hearers: “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Again, the lectionary cycle during the Octave of Christmas recalls our personal need for redemption from sin, our need for a Savior, which is so often lost in all the hollow holiday jingles.
The gospel reading, by contrast, tells the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, those children of two years and younger put to death by Herod so that he might upend the prophecy of Christ’s birth. In an age overshadowed by the scourge of abortion and the plague of contraception, it is fitting that the liturgy retains this commemoration of a profoundly sorrowful historical event, and that popular devotion mirrors its sentiments in “The Coventry Carol.” As carolers sing “Lully lullay,” we might well bear in mind the holy innocents of our own time, the tens of millions of aborted infants, while also keeping in prayer the mothers and fathers who suffer the guilt of having closed the doors of life to these, the least among us (cf. Matthew 25:40 and 19:14).
The Feast of the Holy Family, “Islands of Christian Life,” and the Theotokos
Between the first reading from Sirach and the second from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, everyone in the pew finds reason to look sidelong at everyone else on the Feast of the Holy Family on December 29 (in 2019)…and then, hopefully, each one smiles, catching themselves! The dignity and authority of father and mother are affirmed in Sirach, and so too the great blessing of children in the day’s Psalm (128).
The second reading encourages a view of the domestic church as The School of Christian Virtue, crowned and perfected of course by charity. Fraternal correction and admonition are strongly suggested here, and so too the singing of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in the home (Colossians 3:16). This mostly lost Christian pastime (past-time) stands in need of renewal: hymns and songs similar to those encouraged here are available now as never before. Songs such as “The Wexford Carol” and the “Coventry Carol,” and hymns like “Adeste Fideles,” can be found, listened to, transcribed, and memorized with ease. Likewise, other instances of such music, such as “The Dilly Carol” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” combine communal prayer, recreation, and seasonal entertainment with catechesis. In the latter carol, the two turtledoves are figures for the Old and New Testament, the three French hens the Three Kings, the four calling birds the Four Books of the Gospel, the five gold rings the Pentateuch, the six geese the Days of Creation, the seven swans the Works of Mercy, the eight maids the Beatitudes, and so on (see Ian Bradley, Penguin Book of Carols, p. 241).
The practice of daily communal prayer in the home in a dedicated domestic space, especially Night Prayer, lends itself to allowing “the Word of Christ” to “dwell richly” in the Christian household (see Colossians 3:16). The periodic singing of songs and Marian hymns at the opening and closing of Night Prayer clears the way for spiritual songs to continue daily throughout the year, changing according to the passing of liturgical time’s principal seasons.
Fittingly for the Feast of the Holy Family, the gospel for the day recounts in detail the story of the Flight into Egypt, one of the mysteries of the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows. Long before the Benedict Option, St. Joseph gave the Church the “Egypt Option”—in order to create an authentically Christian culture in the home, families must intentionally step out of the “culture of death” (see Evangelium Vitae 12) which seeks the spiritual destruction of the family itself. Extending the life of the liturgy into domestic life is one of the surest ways to maintain Christian homes as “islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world” (CCC 1655).
We who deign to call ourselves Christians must proclaim with St. Paul, and must dare to witness to our proclamation, “I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). Mass on December 30th thus exhorts us to contemptus mundi (contempt of the world) even as the culture tempts Christians to bask in its luxurious vanities. The last day of the calendar year is marked by a reminder that it is “the last hour” (1 John 2: 18), a time for us to consider the coming New Year in light of the Last Things.
January 1st, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, marks the culmination of the Octave of Christmas, even as we look forward to the Adoration of the Magi. The feast of the Theotokos (the “God-bearer”) and Mother of the Church is an ideal day for large-scale feasting and liturgically inspired merriment among the Christian faithful. It is a time for the public renewal of Marian consecration and the communal singing of Christmas hymns, Marian songs, and popular Christmas carols, a day when we can sing in unison with the angels, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”
The Gifts of the Magi and What They Signify
The feast-cycle of the Twelve Days of Christmas thus finds in God’s great gift of himself its source, its prototype, and its fullest expression. If we fail to receive the Christ-child at Christmastime, we may as well leave all the other gifts under the tree!
The Twelve Days of Christmas culminate at long last in the Solemnity of the Epiphany. On that day the Three Kings, Balthazar, Kaspar, and Melchior, present their presents in Christ’s presence: gold for his kingship, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh for his humanity. On this day the Prayer over the Gifts in the Roman Missal announces the deeper reality signified by the Three Kings’ offerings: “Look with favor, Lord, we pray, on these gifts of your Church, in which are offered now not gold or frankincense or myrrh, but he who by them is proclaimed, sacrificed and received, Jesus Christ.”
Just as we eagerly open the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning, let us hasten this season to unwrap the great mysteries presented in the sacred liturgy throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. Presiding over all, our heavenly Father and Mary our Mother, with the tender spirit of Christmas, urge us to receive the greatest gift of all. For through our devout attentiveness to the sacred liturgy we unwrap with joyful anticipation the swaddled Babe at Bethlehem, receiving with elation the very essence of Christmas, the gift of Christ in the Mass, our foretaste of heavenly joy “wrapped” in the appearance of bread and wine. Thus, in the Tantum Ergo, we sing,
Praestet fides supplementum
What the senses cannot!”)