We all know how steeped in tradition our Christmas celebrations can be. I know I certainly struggle with expectations around this time of year. I expect that I will drive around looking at lights listening to a Christmas Carol. I expect that I will hear and sing familiar songs. I expect that I will be filled with the warmth and joy of the season. And to be honest, I don’t always live up to those expectations. Often it feels like I spend a month preparing for Christmas Day and by Boxing Day it’s all over. Yet, in the church season, the feast of Christmas is just getting started. In the Eastern churches, they haven’t even had their big Christmas celebrations as yet. In the medieval church, yesterday was the start, not the end, of a twelve day festival. We are in the midst of the twelve days of Christmas! Liturgists, ministers, music directors and congregations always have some version of the debate of when to start singing Christmas Carols. Some traditions absolutely refuse to sing carols until after Dec. 24th. Advent is supposed to be a time of reflection, pondering, and preparation while the season between Dec. 25th and Jan. 6th is to be the big event. I tend to blend the two. But I have recently come to appreciate that the church has this opportunity to be a little counter-cultural when it comes to Christmas. Yes, we can embrace the fact that December is the only month in which we might hear a carol or hymn while also grocery shopping. But why not reclaim the twelve days of Christmas- as a great and wonderful festival within our tradition. Why not hang on to and celebrate this Christmas season a little more and a little longer. Spend the next twelve days reading through the rest of Luke chapter 2 in which Jesus is named, presented at the temple, returns to Nazareth and then twelve years later shows up in Jerusalem.
You might think it is a bit strange to hear the story of Jesus, getting lost in the temple at 12 years old, as part of our Christmas celebrations but I think this is part of the reclaiming of the twelve days of Christmas. Because the twelve days of Christmas aren’t about holding onto the image of a baby in a manger. In hearing this story in Luke, we are reminded that the idyllic story of Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths surrounded by cattle and sheep, doesn’t last long. Next week we will be reminded that this story also involved fear and violence, in amongst a great revelation. The story of Jesus in the temple reminds us that we don’t get to stay safe and cozy in our faith, rather we have to ask the question how Jesus is incarnate in our lives and communities. Do we see Jesus in our every day or does he get lost in the temple?
In Luke’s story, “Jesus is depicted as sitting, listening, and asking questions.” Then it goes on to describe how all who heard Jesus were amazed at his understanding and his answers. Now, it makes sense that often when this passage is interpreted that it is used to demonstrate just how fully Jesus understands his authority, even at twelve years old. I’m going to argue that this time around what I hear is a clearly intelligent twelve year old, who is asking and answering questions. This story is a model for faith formation. It invites us to ask questions, and tackle difficult theological subjects. It says that the incarnation is not just about a cute story of a baby in a manager but it is also a story about going deeper with God and being open to all kinds of possibilities.
I also want to point out that Jesus has been missing for three days. Imagine being his parents. We might read a foreshadowing of the resurrection into this story but for his parents it was likely a agonizing three days. Mary says so herself when she chastises Jesus stating, “I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” I wonder if we ever search for Jesus with great anxiety? Jesus’ rebuttal of, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” is also astounding. It might seem obvious to us- that Jesus is found in the temple or in our language- the church- but how often do we really find Jesus incarnate in the church? The story of Jesus getting lost in Jerusalem and being found in the temple forces us to ask, do we seek, find and become amazed by Jesus?
Commentary writer Phill Mellstrom points out that, “The Luke passage invites us to go deeper than “seeing” and move towards “recognizing”. Jesus is growing up…What does it mean for us to see Jesus growing up- beyond the infant, beyond the safe romanticism that can pervade Christmas traditions? How is Jesus incarnated in our homes and communities? How are we recognizing Jesus in the difficult spaces that can come with this time of year? Christmas is not a perfectly gift-wrapped time where people forget the worries of their reality. [It isn’t a Hallmark movie]. It is a time where isolation, grief, debt-fuelled stress can be very real. How do we recognize Jesus in the midst of this? Are we prepared to even look for Jesus in these hard places?”
Last year, we managed to catch Lucy Worsley’s BBC Tudor Twelve Days of Christmas Special in which she recreates how the twelve days of Christmas were celebrated in Tudor times. I would highly recommend it if you see it come up on Knowledge Network. Each day within this festival had meaning. Still today, within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, these days have special meaning. Now I’m not suggesting we reclaim all these days, within the reformed tradition it might seem strange to all of a sudden celebrate saint’s days. But it is fascinating to learn the themes behind some of the days- which then helps us to see those hard places where Jesus is made incarnate.
Today, Dec. 26th is of course, St. Stephen’s Day. We know it thanks to Good King Wenceslas but in reality this is a day that commemorates the very first Christian martyr. Stephen was stoned for his belief in the incarnational Jesus! The account is found in Acts 7 and you know who approved of the killing? Saul- later to be named Paul. While we don’t generally celebrate saints-I think it is important for us to remember that sometimes recognizing the incarnated Jesus is risky. Or perhaps like Good King Wenceslas this is also a day in which we are the incarnated Jesus, caring for those on the fringes. Do we search, find and become amazed by Jesus? Do we become Jesus in those hard places?
Another interesting day within the twelve days is Dec. 28th which is sometimes called the “Feast of the Holy Innocents”. This is a day that commemorates what happens after the wise men go home by a different route and Herod realizes he has been tricked. Herod demonstrates his tyrannical nature and calls for the the massacre of all the children two years old and under. You see the twelve days of Christmas are not always celebratory feasts. What Lucy Worsley pointed out is how comforting this day was in a time period where infant mortality was high. It acknowledges hard places found within our world. Do we search, find and become amazed by Jesus? Do we become Jesus in moments of grief?
January 1st is known as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ because according to Jewish tradition a male child is circumcised 8 days after his birth. What I find fascinating is that within the Roman Catholic tradition, as part of this feast it is the World Day of Peace. Like baptism in our tradition, circumcision, was a way in which children were enveloped and claimed as one of God’s own. So, I find beauty in also seeing this as day in which could mark peace. Something many corners of this world lacks. Something many corners within our busy lives lack. When we are in need of the peace which passes all understanding, the peace of being enveloped into the family of God, do we search, find and become amazed by Jesus?
Of course the whole twelve days ends with epiphany- the day in which we celebrate the Magi’s gift giving. I know Ross will touch on that a bit next week so I won’t say too much. But it continues this theme of searching for, finding, and being amazed by Jesus.
Mellstrom says, “Just as Joseph and Mary didn’t know where to find Jesus, we must ask ourselves similar questions- do we know where to go to find Jesus? Can we recognize signs of His presence? Do we recognize Christ in the guise of stranger as well as friend? Where are we afraid to look? Where are we afraid to go, to wait, and to dwell in expectancy?” I know, I’ve been asking a lot of questions- and not giving you many answers. I know you probably expected a sweet Christmas message about an adorable baby. But sometimes we don’t get what we expect. And like Jesus as a twelve year old in the temple, sometimes we have to ask questions. We may not always get answers right away- although almost always the answer in the end is Jesus. I invite you to celebrate the Christmas feast time in all kinds of ways searching for, finding and becoming amazed by Jesus. Amen