What A Week 

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow  

This has been quite a week. And I’m not talking about the social calendar, or the political news cycle, or the end-of-year perspectives already showing up in the media, or even the run-up to New Year’s Eve tonight. I’m talking about the church calendar. In our liturgical cycle, the days after Christmas are kind of wild. They take us on an emotional and spiritual roller coaster. They make for quite a week.  

You know, we don’t talk much about the days after Christmas Day, because Christmas itself is such a big thing. And here at Trinity we make Christmas a big thing, and we do big things for Christmas, and I love being part of all of them, and I am so grateful to all the members of our parish – from the Altar Guild to the Eucharistic Ministers to the Christmas Eve Outreach Dinner crew to the Choir – so grateful to all the members of the parish who make Trinity Christmas what it is.  

But once we’ve gotten past December 25, the church calendar isn’t done with us. There are more days yet to come. The days that come after Christmas add new dimensions to our remembrance, and make us understand even more deeply how Jesus was born among us to transform our entire lives.  

The day after Christmas, December 26, is St Stephen’s Day. You may remember that from the carol “Good King Wenceslaus.” Stephen was part of the earliest church, maybe 2 or 3 years after the resurrection, so 35 years after Christmas. Stephen was one of the first seven deacons; he represented the Greek-speaking converts to the faith of Jesus. He was by all accounts a very powerful and persuasive preacher; he did most of his preaching at a Greek-speaking synagogue in Jerusalem; and he said so many incontrovertibly good things about Jesus that his opponents tried to shut him up by claiming he was saying bad things about Moses and the Temple.   

When he was brought up on false charges for this, he bore witness to Jesus in front of the high priest and the council, and when he was talking, his face was like the face of an angel. The authorities we so afraid and enraged by his words that they ordered him stoned to death. And even as he was dying, he asked God not to hold this sin against them, and he saw the heavens opened and the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  

Stephen died because of his faith in Jesus – because others rejected that faith and therefore rejected Stephen’s life. But Stephen’s death was transformed by his faith in Jesus. For Stephen, the pain of his martyrdom became inseparable from the glory of God – even the pain could not diminish the glory that was greater, the glory that was revealed in the living Jesus, born in Bethlehem many years before. And St Stephen’s Day comes one day after Christmas Day.  

The next day, December 27, is the feast of St John, the Apostle and Evangelist. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John was the fourth disciple to follow Jesus – right after Simon Peter and Andrew and John’s brother James. According to the story, Jesus called James and John when they were mending their nets, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat and they followed Jesus and they never looked back.  

And according to church tradition – stories not in the scriptures themselves, but circulated in the church from the early centuries on – according to tradition, John was the only one of all the Twelve Apostles to die of natural causes. All the other Apostles were martyred, like Stephen – and in increasingly gruesome ways, if you take the stories literally. But John became the elder of the church in Ephesus, the stories go, where he looked after Jesus’ mother Mary for the rest of her life, and lived into his 80s or 90s – which, given the average life expectancy of a person in the ancient Roman Empire, was a very full long life indeed.  

I’ve always enjoyed the notion that John’s long life is the reason his gospel is so different from the others. There is no historical basis for thinking this, of course, and I admit it is probably more fantasy than reality. But I imagine John living all those years, leading the church all those years, praying and offering Eucharist and pondering and reflecting on his memories of Jesus, going deeper and deeper into the symbols and spirit of Jesus – until his gospel, his version of the good news of Jesus, became so steeped in the inner meanings that it is still called to this day the most mystical of all the gospels.  

John lived for his faith in Jesus. Some, like Stephen, like the other Apostles, are called to witness their faith by dying. Some, like John, and maybe like most of us, are called to witness our faith by living, by shaping every part of our lives to reflect the love of Jesus that is in is, by pondering and praying and seeking the meaning of things until everything is a reflection of Jesus. It was John, tradition says, who saw that the Word that created all things was the same Word that lived with us in Jesus, the one whose life is the light of all people. That means that Christmas isn’t just a tribal thing or an ethnic thing or even just a Christian thing – it means that Christmas changes the cosmos, every thing that is. And St John’s Day comes two days after Christmas Day.  

And then on December 28 comes The Holy Innocents. I think that is actually one of the most difficult days on the entire calendar. It remembers how Herod became enraged when the Wise Men did not return to him after visiting the baby Jesus, did not report to him the location of Jesus, so that he could go and have Jesus killed quietly and remove that threat to his (usurped) political power. When Herod’s original plan was thwarted, he did the next best thing: he sent soldiers to kill all the male children two years and younger in the entire region of Bethlehem. All of them. Herod was so terrified of losing his power that he ordered the wholesale slaughter of mere children, rather than let one possible prophesied legitimate heir survive.  

Christian tradition has said that those innocent boys were in effect martyrs, who received paradise because they died to protect Jesus. I’ve seen church art depicting the souls of the Holy Innocents, like cute little cherub baby angels, rejoicing in heaven when they’re welcomed there. But what strikes me about this day is the tremendous loss, the deep suffering, the “voice heard in Ramah, the wailing and loud lamentation,” as Matthew narrates it. What strikes me is the futility of the desire for earthly power, how its violence always undermines itself, and how people of goodwill must always be ready to stand up to violence. Holy Innocents Day comes three days after Christmas Day.  

And then comes today, the First Sunday after Christmas, when John’s Gospel proclaims that the process of Incarnation that began with Jesus did not end with Jesus, but “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” As children of flesh we are all subject to loss and the threat of violence and death, just like the innocents of Bethlehem. But as children of God we know the promise that there is life and light, and beyond all that tyranny and death can do to us there is the love of God in whom all things shall be well.  

And if there is one thing this crazy week of Christmas tells us, it is that the love of Jesus is big enough to hold all these things. That Jesus was born in Bethlehem not to make a cute little manger scene, but to bring God’s love right smack into the middle of human life, with all its glory and service and suffering and pondering and violence and liberation.  

Stephen died for Jesus – and the love of Jesus took that up and carried it into glory. John lived for Jesus – and the love of Jesus took that up and deepened it into insight and wisdom. The Holy Innocents were murdered for Jesus – and the love of Jesus took that up and through it now compels us to work against every violence against the innocent. The Word became flesh and lived among us – and the love of Jesus takes us up and makes us children of God to share God’s mission in the world.  

These days after Christmas show us just how much Christmas means, just how far the meaning of Christmas reaches. Let us embrace that Christmas reach, and let the birth of Jesus transform us this day. Amen.