Let me revise the question, “What did you get for Christmas?” to “What did you get for Christmastide?” In the days immediately following Christmas, one hears a repeated refrain about taking down the tree, packing up the decorations, and finishing the leftovers. For many, the feast is obviously over. No doubt this sentiment prevails due to the popular pattern of holiday overload from prior to Thanksgiving until the morning of December 25. Some American churches even canceled their Sunday after Christmas services with post-holiday exhaustion as the excuse. But let’s not forget that the Twelve Days of Christmas have only just ended, and the celebration of Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, is just beginning. There is much to be gained in putting away the popular pattern and taking up the traditional rhythm of Advent–Christmastide–Epiphany passed down to us in the Book of Common Prayer. There are some wonderful gifts left unopened when we check out before the remainder of Christmastide and ignore Epiphany because we over indulged in Advent.
The traditional rhythm maintains a better dynamic between penitence and celebration, allowing us to enter fully into both. A season of penitence and anticipation in Advent gives way to days of basking in the glory of Christ’s appearing in Christmastide and Epiphany. Our family tree will be left up until the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (February 2). The candy will not disappear until Lent. But even before we get to Epiphany, we have been confronted with some surprisingly comforting truths that lead up to it.
The traditional rhythm is not only more balanced, but it is also more grounded in reality. At first glance, the red letter days that fall into Christmastide don’t seem at all in the spirit of Christmas measured by the standard of “Ho Ho Ho! And mistletoe, and presents for pretty girls,” as Lucy puts it to Charlie Brown. The day after Christmas is the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church both in word and deed. The fourth day of Christmas memorializes the holy innocents from 2 years old and younger in Bethlehem who King Herod slaughtered, understanding them to be martyrs to Christ not in word, but deed. Their deaths fulfill the expectations of passages like Jeremiah 31:15, shaped by the seed of the Serpent vs. the Seed of the Woman motif beginning in Genesis 3:15. Thereby, they die as holy witness to Christ, the consolation of Israel.
These are days that many even in contemporary Anglican orbits shrink from. And then there is the feast of the Circumcision of Christ on January 1. In the classic 1662 Book of Common Prayer, it dominates the second half of Christmastide as its Collect, Epistle, and Gospel are used all the way until the Epiphany on January 6. Kudos to the ACNA’s BCP 2019 for keeping “the Circumcision” first in the title, “The Circumcision and Holy Name of Jesus”, because the ’79 book diverted attention away exclusively to “the Holy Name”. In doing so, the connection between St. Stephen’s Day, the Holy Innocents, and the Circumcision was obscured. That connection is blood. And we need a savior who answers to the violence and suffering of our fallen world.
God’s Son was incarnate and became fully human in order to die. Christmas leads to Good Friday … and Easter. His blood was shed to perfectly fulfill the requirements of God’s law, which we could not accomplish ourselves. More specifically, the Circumcision reminds us that “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). It is also for the Jews. So, when Orthodox Jews in Monsey, New York are confronted with a machete attacker during a Hanukkah (“festival of lights”) party, Christians are immediately primed to renounce such dark, religious violence, and to pray to the Light of the World for the comfort, healing, and safety of innocent victims.
Christmas is about a Savior who condescends to us – all of us – including the most vulnerable of us. Parents of small children understand the importance of the Savior becoming an infant and young child, especially if they endure bereavement or face life-threatening illnesses with their children.
After a rather bloody path is traced from Christmas through New Year’s Day, we come to the Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Here is emphasized the glory of Christ’s appearing, the miracles he wrought, and the cosmic splendors that drew royalty-connected figures out from the far corner of the world, bringing him gifts. He is making the sad things come untrue. Though he has not yet returned to renew all things, his saving power is declared to all. The child born in Bethlehem is the Savior of the world. St. Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16) The Savior who answers to our needs is a Savior for anyone who believes in him.
Finally, the traditional observances are more transformative. The Collect for the Circumcision of Christ is:
“Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
The Collect for the Epiphany, in turn, is:
“O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles; Mercifully grant that we, who know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
As the ink dries on our New Year’s resolutions, and we turn the page on one year and open to the next, two Collects, first on New Year’s Day, and then on January 6, trace an inward transition that should occur in our hearts in response to Christ’s coming into the world. We move away from our deep-seated attachments to soul-killing influences and into an increasing enjoyment of God. Here is a Christmas that is simultaneously more demanding – “mortifying our worldly and carnal lusts” – and at the same time more enjoyable – leading us to the “fruition of [his] glorious Godhead”. That is what we really want for Christmas.