Among the traditional carols of the Christmas season is the English song The Twelve Days of Christmas with its gradually escalating numbers of fanciful gifts (eleven lords a-leaping?) sent by “my true love”. There have been many variations of this carol, including an Australian version.
My favourite is the comedy skit Christmas Countdown written and recorded by the Irish actor and singer Frank Kelly. However, Kelly treats the twelve days of Christmas as if they were a countdown (the days leading up to Christmas). This is consistent with our culture’s strong and gradually rising sense of expectation in the time before Christmas Day.
However, within the Christian community the season of Advent is the lead-up to Christmas. Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas. We have just celebrated that season with daily events co-ordinated through the church website.
The twelve Days of Christmas actually begin on Christmas Day and end on Epiphany Eve – the 5th of January. The good news is that, for Christians, Christmas is not one day but twelve!
We began our celebration of Christmas with live-streamed services on Christmas Day and the third day of Christmas (Sunday 27th December). Today we start a series of very brief readings / reflections for the remaining days of Christmas but there will be only a single reading from the gospels for each day. Where the Lectionary provides a gospel reading we reflect on that reading and I have provided other gospel readings where the Lectionary does not provide one. Our reflections will focus on Jesus, Family & Community.
Monday 28th December – The fourth day of Christmas: Matthew 2.13-18
This passage was at the heart of our service yesterday. Our culture completely ignores the grim side of the Christmas story. We want it to be only a happy time, with no note at all of deprivation, violence or displacement. Yet these are the reality for many of the world’s population, now as in the time of that first Christmas.
One of the ironies of our current situation is that there are stories in the media of how difficult it is for families to be separated at Christmas by Covid -19 rules or how traumatic it is to be held in hotel quarantine. Yet our nation has held refugees sent to the mainland for medical treatment in hotels for up to two years and has kept refugees in island detention centres for years on end compounding the trauma they have already experienced.
At Christmas we remember that Jesus experienced the lot of the refugee as a child and this was part of what shaped and made him the redeemer of the world. Let us remember, and pray for, others who find themselves detained or displaced from their homes
Tuesday 29th December – The fifth day of Christmas: Matthew 12.46-50
Christians have often referred to one another as ‘sisters and brothers’. This goes back to Jesus himself. The bonds within the Christian community are strong. We do see ourselves as ‘family’ -perhaps with the dysfunctional and difficult overtones of what family can sometimes be.
One aspect of family is the enduring and ‘given’ nature of its bonds: as the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relatives. Within the Christian community we draw close to one another. The relationships we form can endure for decades, giving strength and blessing to one another.
There have been Christian communities where this sense of ‘family’ has overtaken and squeezed out the biological family. Sometimes identified as ‘cults’, such groups have discouraged contact with biological families and become stultifying and dominating in the lives of their followers. In Luke 14.26 Jesus would seem to offer some support for this approach, although I think this is a misreading of Jesus’ intent.
At Christmas we celebrate not only the gift of our biological families that gave us life and shaped our lives, but also the family of our Christian communities that sustain us and guide us in life today.
Wednesday 30th December – The sixth day of Christmas: Luke 2.36-38
Anna, the prophet (and we should recognise and acknowledge that an old woman held such an honoured title!) holds our attention for a brief 3 verses of the gospel. She flits through the narrative like a swallow flashing past. That she was old is attested by vs 37 – but see the footnote: she was either 84 years old at the time Jesus was born, or she had been a widow for 84 years, after 7 years of marriage. Even given the early years of marriage for girls in ancient Palestine, if she had been married 91 years before Jesus’ birth she must then have been over 100 years old.
Whichever it was, she was certainly ‘well stricken in years’ as the Old Testament puts it. Older people in many cultures are respected and even revered as ‘the elders’. Our Western cultures tend to value youth and vigour and the old are often discounted or not seen. When they are widowed they are even less visible, and the sense of loss they experience when a partner dies can feel like a diminution, a loss of part of their own selfhood.
Christian communities often have older members. Like Anna they are a resource, a treasure. Our church has older people, especially older women. May we treasure and celebrate them, for they, like Anna, are filled with wisdom, experience, memory, and love. Those who are looking for the redemption of Jerusalem (vs 38) do well to listen to them, respect them and treasure them!
Thursday 31st December – The seventh day of Christmas: John 8.12-19
This passage from John is not well known. It is a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees centred around Jesus testifying to himself: nobody has right to testify to themselves – other people can speak about who you are, but you shouldn’t go around blowing your own trumpet.
Vs 15 is what I want to focus on: You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. John is also the gospel that, just a few chapters before this, has presented the story of the woman caught in adultery, (John 7.53-8.11). The most ancient manuscripts omit this passage and others have it in different places, or with different text, or mark it as doubtful. What was going on behind the manuscripts to create such a confusion of texts?
One thing that is very clear from the gospels is that Jesus was not judgmental of people – other than religious people! He fought with Pharisees, and priests, and scribes, but befriended prostitutes and tax collectors.
One thing that is very clear from the history of the church is that the battle with Pharisees and moralists continues in every age. Like that story of the woman caught in adultery, we don’t know quite what to do with a Jesus who says I pass judgment on no one.
In the season of Christmas, we remember all the great songs and prophecies about Jesus at the time and in the centuries before his birth. We acknowledge that at the heart of peace and goodwill and the transformation of the social order promised in Jesus, lies a turning away from judgment, a focus on mercy and forgiveness and grace that should characterise the life and actions of all who seek to follow Him.
Friday 1st January – The eighth day of Christmas: Matthew 4.12-17
Christmas is a time for celebrating that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.14). But where did Jesus actually dwell? Every one of us carries an internal list of the houses and towns we have lived in and who we lived with and what we did. What would Jesus’ list look like?
We know he was born in Bethlehem (read Luke 2 and Matthew 2). According to Matthew he left Bethlehem to flee to Egypt at around the age of 2 and that he returned when Herod died, only to relocate from Bethlehem to Nazareth in Galilee because Herod’s son Archelaus was ruling over Judea (Matthew 2.19-23). Now historians date the death of Herod between 4BCE and 1BCE. Historians confirm that Herod was succeeded by Archelaus as ruler of Judea so the relocation of the Holy Family to Nazareth is quite probable. Historically there is no evidence of the Massacre of the Innocents and the close timing of the death of Herod and the birth of Jesus casts doubt on whether Jesus actually went to Egypt: while it was important to Matthew theologically to portray Jesus fleeing to Egypt there is doubt that it happened historically.
Luke, on the other hand, is far more straightforward. Joseph was living in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2.4) and only went to Bethlehem because he had to register there. After the birth they returned to Nazareth (Luke 2.39).
So there is agreement about the birth in Bethlehem, and the childhood in Nazareth, but the Egypt residence is less certain.
In today’s reading there is a small nugget that is very significant: He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea (vs 13). This is where the adult Jesus chose to live. Today it is a ruin, but sited on the water’s edge at the northern tip of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) with magnificent views to the south over all of Lake Tiberias and the countryside of Galilee. Jane and I visited there some years ago and were struck by the beauty of the place. As people who have chosen to live by the sea, we are encouraged that Jesus might have been of similar tastes and outlook to ourselves.
The emphasis within the Christian churches is often on the universal, ‘the church invisible’, the gospel proclaimed in every place and every age. We do not take the time to focus on our place, our surroundings, the time and circumstances in which we find ourselves. Jesus made choices, and located himself in one place, and from that place moved in increasing circles as he preached and ministered throughout Galilee and Judea.
As we celebrate the Incarnation, of the Word dwelling among us, it is important for our vision to be ‘focal on the local’, to reflect upon where we live, and why we live there. What is our community and how is it changing? Who are its people and how are they linked to the wider region and even the world?
If we are to be true to Jesus, we too need to be engaged with place and very aware of our community, its people and its history.
Saturday 2nd January – The ninth day of Christmas: Luke 8.1-3
The heading in some translations of Luke is misleading. The NIV has The Parable of the Sower. Sure, that follows from vs 4, but the editors of this version of the gospel don’t value vss 1-3 in their own right. The NRSV gets it better with the heading Some women Accompany Jesus.
Why did Luke think it necessary to give us the detail of these verses? The twelve (the disciples) were with him (vs 1) but also some women who had been cured of diseases or demons (vs 2). Three are named, and one of them was Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward. It is interesting that Luke alone, of all the gospels, gives Herod a role in the trial of Jesus (see Luke 23.6-12). Here in chapter 8, Joanna who by marriage is firmly in the camp of Jesus’ enemies, finds her place among the faithful women who accompany Jesus.
We are gradually learning more and more about women and their links to one another, the social networks and bonds that are stronger than class interests and their alliances with men. One thing a male pastor learns early is to respect and not interfere with the groups and networks of women in the congregation: within an institution and culture that has been very patriarchal they have been a vital means of protecting women’s interests and nurturing women’s lives.
In the gospels women are some of the strongest supporters of Jesus. They are standing by the cross when the men have fled. They are the first witnesses of the Resurrection. They are the leaders in many of the churches that Paul founded. We are blessed to have women in our community who are leaders, mentors, and guides.
Today be thankful for the women of our community, and the women who are part of your life.
Sunday 3rd January – The tenth day of Christmas (Second Sunday after Christmas) John 1.10-18
These well-known and beautiful words express poetically the relationship between ‘the Word’ and ‘the world’. It is a relationship of deep connection (vss 10ab, 11a) but also deep estrangement (vss 10c, 11b). This tension is overcome through faith (vss 12-13).
The central verse is vs 14: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, the fullness of the gift of truth.
If you are a careful Bible reader you will see the translation above is slightly different to any of the usual translations of this verse. The reason I have opted for this translation is that Johannine scholars (those who study the gospel and letters of John) are of the view that John does not have a strong concept of grace as Paul certainly has. Christian translators have read John through the lens of Paul, importing a Pauline view of grace where it does not belong. The Greek word usually translated grace can also mean gift. Hence my preferred translation (one shared by some eminent scholars) presents Jesus as the fullness of the gift of truth.
This has implications for the community of Jesus, for it places truth at the heart of our understanding of the gospel. The word truth appears 95 times in the New Testament and 37 of those occurrences are in the writings of John.
There are fads and fashions in Christian virtue. In the 6th century patience was a cardinal virtue in the Christian community. I think that the second half of the 20th century many Christians would have said love was the most important virtue. While not technically a virtue (truthfulness or honesty would be the related virtue) we may be moving into a time when truth is the most important thing characterising the Christian community.
Different carols focus on different elements of the Christmas message. For instance, Christina Rossetti wrote the carol Love came down at Christmas. Others have focussed on glory, or peace. John states clearly that what is given to the world in Jesus is the fullness of the gift of truth.
There are not many carols that celebrate truth coming in Jesus. The festival itself is so overlain with traditions, sentimentality and even ‘spin’ that we do not associate Christmas with truth. In an age when truth is being assailed in so many different ways rethinking Christmas as a message of deep truth would be a real gift to the world.
Monday 4th January – The eleventh day of Christmas: Luke 2.41-52
This story is one that every parent can relate to. Losing a child can be a great trauma. Most children have wandered off or been lost at some point in their lives – especially in large public gatherings. Some just ‘run away’ for a time – usually in childish protest and not for long.
But for some the disappearance of a child in this way is not a passing anxiety. When children or teenagers run away only to disappear and never be found, families are left with agonising and extended uncertainty and pain.
Another form of loss is when children as they grow up reject their parents and exclude them from their lives and the lives of their own children, the parents’ grandchildren. I have known several people who have experienced this sorrow in life. They are spared the pain of not knowing what happened to their children, and they have the comfort of knowing they are alive, but the deliberate and wilful exclusion from their children’s lives is a deep and continuing wound.
At Christmas, when so many families are re-uniting and celebrating, remember those who have lost their children through death, disappearance or estrangement. This is one of the most painful aspects of being a family, and Christmas is a time when such losses are re-focussed and experienced quite acutely.
Tuesday 5th January: The twelfth day of Christmas: Luke 6.27-31
Where can the Twelve Days of Christmas close but with this, perhaps the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings? Christmas opens with a blaze of glory and a heavenly choir singing of peace and goodwill, but none of this can become real without a willingness to love our enemies and offer the other cheek to abuse and violence (vs 29). This covers not only non-violence but the deep spirit of sharing with those who have nothing (vss 29-30). The reading ends with the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you (vs 31).
If Christmas starts with glory and joy, it ends with the hard work of loving your enemies, and sharing your goods, and doing to others as we would have them do to us. All the world is happy to sing the song we learned from the angels in Luke 2.14, but only those who follow Jesus remember and seek to practice these teachings of the one through whom peace on earth will come.