The Church’s Calendar has a majestic quality about it. It reminds me of those large lifts you find in exclusive hotels. They give out the message that, whatever your business or busyness, we have ways of doing things that take their own time and we do not apologise for it. I don’t know about those lifts, but the Church’s Calendar does make two exceptions to its generally sedate pace: those are around Easter and Christmas.
For us Christians, Christmas, of course, starts on the evening of 24 December and continues until 2 February, Candlemas, when we remember the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Forty days of Christmas: on the face of it, pretty sedate. But that is only on the face of it.
Consider the past few days. Even putting aside the delightful outreach services which have become an important part of the Church’s ministry to its community (services such as Christingle, Nativity services, Carol services and the like) we are still left with the first Communion of Christmas or Midnight Mass. It has its own collect, readings and distinct emphasis. Then come the day time Communion services with their own collect, readings and prayers, as well as the special provision for Morning and Evening Prayer on that most holy day.
You might think that would be it for a while. But, suddenly, the very next day, we are called upon to remember and celebrate the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen with all the sad, proud, thoughtful prayers and readings surrounding his sacrifice.
The day after that – and this, mind you, is also called the Third Day of Christmas - we remember the Apostle and Evangelist John with the rich tradition surrounding him and his care of Mary after Jesus’ crucifixion, even down to the tradition that they lived together in Ephesus up the time of her and his death. This is still Christmas.
On the Fourth Day of Christmas comes the horror story of the Slaughter of the Innocents, so beautifully and gravely present in our carol services in the Coventry Carol – “Herod the King, In his raging…”
The Fifth Day of Christmas (that’s 29 December, yesterday) we remember, to the day, another Christian martyr, whose tomb was, for centuries, one of the great sites of pilgrimage at Canterbury, St Thomas Becket. Some of you will perhaps be familiar with TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Thomas’ Christmas sermon in that play. It gives us a glimpse into the mind of a Christian martyr and how that death links to God’s acceptance of death when he gave Jesus to be enfleshed as a fully human being.
Our BCP gospel reading takes up back to the First Day of Christmas, the first Christmas indeed, whereas the Common Worship gospel reading at St James later this morning presents us with a Jewish boy just before his bar Mitzvah (just before he is 13 years old therefore and technically an adult man) – and this all in under a week – and today is only the Sixth Day of Christmas.
So you see what I mean about the lightning pace of things beneath the apparently leisurely movement of the Church Calendar in its forty day celebration of Christmas. 13 years of human life in six days, with a massacre, two martyrdoms and an evangelist’s anniversary included.
I think we probably need those forty days to enable us to digest such rich contents. We might find some help by referring again to TS Eliot. In his poem Journey of the Magi, the one that starts “A cold coming we had of it….” he reflects on the object of the journey, asking precisely about life and death. The speaker says
..........were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
You see, the whole point of the Christmas story for those of us who have grown up with it or come to it with the maturity of adulthood, is that it encompasses death. The point about that baby in the manger is that this is the Jesus who, fully God and fully human, found the division in our humanity. Even those who loved him most proved capable of betraying and deserting him, and even those who executed him apparently saw that this was no criminal but a son of God. The apparent contradictions of the Church Calendar reflect the contradictions of our own human nature. We are not, we cannot be, perfect. We are creatures capable of both love and hate; we can heal and we can kill (as Oscar Wilde pointed out, the brave man with a sword, the coward with a word). If we deny that, we deny our humanity and, quite frankly, we will do harm to others whether we wish to or not. If, on the other hand, we are ready to live with that conflict in our natures, then we are more likely to become fully human, living with our always capacity to love and to hate, to heal and to kill. And, if we are fully human, then we can call on the promise of the Incarnation, that is, we can hope to be transformed through death and through resurrection.