Below is a DRAFT text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded text. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Happy sixth day of Christmas.
Have you ever looked at one of these calendars? The ones that help you navigate all of the feast days of the church, and the colors that are suggested for use…
Have you ever noticed how many feast days there are after Christmas?
There are five major feasts (and a couple of lesser ones) in what was once known as the Octave of Christmas (the days between Christmas and New Years.
There is some ancient wisdom in the church calendar, if we pay attention to it. In our world the days between Christmas and New Years is awash in year end lists…and retrospectives…and prognostications about the next year, which never live up to the hype.
I’m not suggesting that we start celebrating all the religious feasts, but being aware of the church calendar, and the differences between it and our secular calendar does provide some insight…some distance…some clarity that you don’t get anywhere else.
For example…we don’t need to get all caught up in all the year end stuff, because we’ve already celebrated new years…the church year actually starts on the first Sunday of Advent. That period between Christ ascending the universal throne in glory and the promise of his coming again…That’s new year’s. The church encourages us to start our year not with overindulgence and difficult-to-keep-resolutions, but with prayerful preparation for the coming of the savior.
The First Sunday of Advent is when the whole church switches to a new lectionary cycle…all of the readings in church come from a set three year cycle of readings…right now we’re in year C which focuses on the Gospel according to Luke, and the Old Testament prophets.
The first major feast is obviously the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, which we all know as Christmas. You probably also know that this celebration most likely originated in Rome in the early 4th century, Christians wanted to co-opt or provide an alternative to the prevailing Roman winter solstice festival, celebrating the birth Saturn, “the Unconquerable Sun”. So we started a feast of the Incarnate Son (Marion Hatchett, p. 86). This tension between the secular, commercial pole of Christmas and the sacred, religious pole continues to this day.
The very next day on the church calendar is the Feast of Stephen. Stephen was one of the first deacons in the church and the very first Christian martyr. He’s over there in that window…if you look above the figure you can see six stones…that’s how he died. Stephen boldly proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus in front of the council of Jerusalem not long after the resurrection, and was stoned to death, as recorded in the Book of Acts.
Historians believe the Feast of Stephen originated in Jerusalem in the fourth century, and was probably celebrated as a feast day there before the observance of Christmas began (Hatchett, p. 87). You might wonder at memorializing the first martyr the day after the nativity, but, there is a logic to it. It may seem morbid or unseemly to us, but remember it’s only been in the last two or three generations that death has become medicalized and sanitized, almost to abstraction…for most people in much of the world—and for all people up until the middle of the last century—death was a very real and very present part of life. Medieval art of the nativity is full of inventive symbols linking Jesus’ birth and death. The manger, remember, is a food trough, and in a lot of art it looks a lot like a coffin or tomb reminding viewers that it is Christ’s crucified body which will feed the world. The wood of the manger is often linked to the wood of the cross… And this close linkage of birth and death has some deep wisdom…it reminds us that life is not the opposite of death…the opposite of death is birth. Life continues through birth and death.
Death was a much more constant companion to our ancestors, and martyrdom was held up as a model of how to live as a Christian…being willing to die for you faith, even if you didn’t need to. The days after Christmas all reinforce this. Stephen is a martyr in both will and deed—he was willing to give up his life—and in fact—in actually did.
St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, whom we celebrate on 12/27 is a martyr in will but not in deed. This is the John known as the “beloved disciple,” the one who traditionally is given credit for composing the Gospel we heard today, along with the other “Johannine literature” (the letters from John and the Book of Revelation). However, most scholars today doubt that these were all written by one person.
Tradition has John living a very long life in Ephesus, writing and training the bishop Polycarp (he’s over in that window), and being generally very influential in the development of the early church. John did not die a martyr’s death, but was a martyr in “will but not in fact.” In other words, he was willing to die for his faith, he was just never presented with the opportunity. If you were feeling sketch about Stephen, John might provide some comfort.
It is not at all clear why Dec. 27th was chosen as his feast date, however that date was set aside very early on, well before the 7th century. I wonder if there wasn’t a kind of martyr’s tryptic being developed. The 26th is Stephen, who was willing to die and did, John, who was willing to die but didn’t, and then on Dec. 28th we get the feast of the Holy Innocents.
Now this is a Christmas story you don’t hear much these days…maybe if you happen to sing the Coventry Carol with the line… “Herod the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day, his men of might, in his own sight, all the young Children to slay.” It doesn’t usually make the Christmas Pops list. The story comes from Matthew 2, where Herod tries to eliminate Jesus by killing all the children in Bethlehem…but Jospeh has been warned in a dream to flee to Egypt. The children Herod ordered killed—the Holy Innocents—were martyrs—martyrs in fact, but not in will. They didn’t intend to die, they didn’t even have a choice, nevertheless they died. It’s a reminder to quote one scholar “that suffering on behalf of a good cause is not always restricted to those who have a choice in the matter.” We still see this dynamic playing out today. Again, this is a very early commemoration, certainly by the 4th century.
So we have the nativity, and then boom, boom, boom, feasts of people who were exemplary witnesses (which is another way of translating the word “Martyros.” “Martyrs” “witnesses” means very different things to us, but it’s the same word in new testament Greek. So whether you think of them as martyrs days or witness days, these feasts show us a range of possible responses to the message of Christ. The way the fallen world typically responds…everything from disinterest to antagonism to violence; and the way the faithful respond…Speaking up, accepting the consequences, remaining faithful, even it it means being collateral damage. To the faithful of those early centuries, there was comfort in all this. Is there comfort in it for us? Depends on how you look at it, I suppose. Christmas’ come and go…New Year’s will come whether you are ready for it, or not…and whether you celebrate it or not…The world is going to keep coming at you…but you get to choose how to live in it…with hope and faith and love, or not.