The Week after Christmas
One thing that really irks me about holidays is the way our culture marks them. We have an obsessive run-up and then they seem to disappear almost before they’re over. When I was working at churches in Los Angeles, I always noticed how the music stations would play Christmas music beginning around Halloween and then, as I was driving home from the Christmas Day service (at about noon), poof! Christmas would be declared over and they would start singing about New Year’s.
In our prevailing culture, the phrase “Christmas Season” usually describes the period between Black Friday morning and Christmas Day at noon. The church’s liturgical calendar, though, has a different way of understanding the time between late November and early January. The four weeks leading up to Christmas are called “Advent”, a time of hopeful, watchful preparation for the birth of Jesus. The Christmas season properly lasts from December 25 through January 5—otherwise known as the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. On January 6 we celebrate the Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus’s glory to the three magi. Taken together, the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany trimester gives us a time not only to prepare for the holiday but also time to enjoy it.
Once at a church meeting, a colleague of mine proposed that we establish a “rapid response” team so that our parish could quickly enlist in the service of whatever hot issue seemed important that day. Another colleague countered that what we really needed was a “pause and reflect” team instead. The suggestion was not well-received.
Somehow, perversely, we have turned Advent from a time of watchful waiting into a time of anxious preparation. And then we’ve taken the holiday we’re waiting and preparing for and cut it short before it even begins. In so doing, our culture has given us a perfect epitome of how it fretfully does things. Rather than bask in the beauty and wonder of Christmas for a full twelve days, we’re off to the next thing (New Year’s Eve, the parades and bowl games, resolutions) without ever pausing to take in what it is we’re experiencing in the first place.
Christmas is not really Jesus’s birthday. Nobody knows the date of his actual birth. It is something much bigger: an observance of his birth as a celebration of the wonder of the incarnation, Christianity’s proclamation and belief that God has come into human flesh and experience. The incarnation is a big idea, and it has gigantic consequences. It means that our life and experience matter because God participates in them. It means that the God we pray to is a God who knows what it is to be us. It means that every human person is precious because each one bears, uniquely, the human face of God.
One of the things I tried to do this Advent was actually to experience Advent, to listen to what its readings said about being in exile, (lost, alienated) and then to hear the slow dawning of the promise that some One was on the way to be with us in a new and hopeful way. One of the things I’m going to try to do this Christmas is actually to experience Christmas—not for a few hours on December 24 and 25, but all the way up to and including the Epiphany on January 6. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” says John’s Gospel, “full of grace and truth”. That’s a big, empowering, liberating fact to try to take in. I can only attempt to get it by making the space and time for it, giving myself over to it, and attending to what I hear and see and feel as I do so.
Now that the holiday frenzy is over, the time to pause and reflect has come. Take advantage of these twelve days to reflect on what Christmas can mean in your life and world. God has come into and blessed our experience. Who we are and what we do has meaning and purpose. The Word has become flesh and now lives among and within us. Merry Christmas, indeed!