Monday, December 28, 2015

Feast Days to follow

"Good King Wenceslas looked out/on the Feast of Stephen...."

Christmas is a season on the Christian church calendar.  It runs from Christmas day to Epiphany, and includes not only the birth of the Christchild ("Peace on earth, goodwill toward men"), but the feast day of the first martyr, Stephen:

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.  (Acts 7:54-60)
There's more violence to come, on the day of the Holy Innocents:

When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding region two years old and younger. this corresponded to the time [of the star] that he had learned from the astrologers. With this event the prediction made by Jeremiah the prophet came true: 'In Ramah the sound of mourning and bitter grieving was heard: Rachel weeping for her children. She refused to be consoled: They were no more.' " (Matthew 2: 16-18, SV)
I don't think either of those texts ever comes up in the Revised Common Lectionary; not in the entire three year cycle.  That story, however, is why the Holy Family makes the journey to Egypt, a journey we often reference and conflate with Luke's story of the trip to Bethlehem, to show how Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees and homeless and seeking shelter from the very beginning.

We forget that in either narrative, Luke's or Matthew's, the cause of the journey was the world; was society; was the powers that be, indifferent to all but the fate of their own power.  We forget that the life of the Christchild was precarious.  But it would be good to remember; maybe it would cut through the seasonal treacle, the annual tide of artificial bonhomie, the usual haste to get it all over with on time.  Ecco homo.  Behold the human one; behold the helpless child, rejected by the powers that be from the very beginning.  About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters/....How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting/For the miraculous birth, there always must be" someone who didn't want it to happen at all.

Behold humanity.

We don't even make much room for Simeon's song.

Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace,
according to your promise.
For I have seen with my own eyes
the deliverance you have made
ready in full view of all nations;
a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Israel.
There is another story of ending; but that is a life fulfilled, not a life cut short.  That is the song of the aged who are reverently, passionately waiting for the miraculous birth.  Matthew gives us the sign that shall be spoken against explicitly, and from the beginning; Luke reserves that for the future:

34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
All of this comes in our Christmastide, our season of celebration that runs from December 25 to January 6th.  Even Epiphany is a season of joy; the church calendar doesn't settle down to the hard work of self-examination and preparation again until Ash Wednesday, which most of us know, if at all, as the day after Mardi Gras.

We should season our Christmastide with more than waiting for New Year's.


  1. For me the season doesn't end until Groundhog Day. Just because I like the lights and music and movies.

  2. Wonderful post, Rmj. A timely reminder that the world is too much with us during the 12 days of Christmas. To see the two tragic stories and the sad prophecy about Mary linked together in a single post is rather startling. The account of the Holy Innocents and Stephen are included in the Lectionary on the respective feast days, and I'm almost certain the Song of Simeon is included in one of the yearly cycles on a Sunday or perhaps on New Year's Day. The remembrance of Stephen, the first martyr, and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is especially relevant today and perhaps has been throughout the history of the church.

    Your first quote of Simeon's words are included in my night prayers.

  3. I don't mean to belittle the RCLectionary, but most churches are going to use it on Sundays only (except during Lent, when you can get people to church for Maundy Thursday or even Good Friday), and I checked it (not too carefully): the Innocents don't show up in the Christmas texts, and Stephen may be there, but he doesn't get the regular notice that the four selections of texts for Xmas do (available every year of the cycle).

    My point being you have to break the lectionary cycle (it's voluntary anyway) to get the Holy Innocents into the Christmas Sundays, and Stephen, too. Those further outside the Catholic tradition than the Episcopalians might not even connect the "feast of Stephen" with "St. Stephen's day", so while good Protestants might know of good king W., that's about all they'd know.

    I love the Song of Simeon. I learned a musical version of it I haven't heard since, or found the music/composer for. It should be a regular part of worship, and the scriptural text should show up at Christmas, it seems to me. I find it a bit odd the RCL doesn't make it so, except maybe on Jan 1, which, IIRC, is commemorated as the Holy Name (presentation in the Temple).

    I love that the church put Stephen's feast Day on the day after Christmas. As a non-Catholic who didn't grow up with that tradition, I find it particularly striking.

  4. And thanks for the compliment on the post; I was a bit unsure of it myself.

  5. Some of us read the passages cited in the Lectionary on week days. We're odd that way. :-)

  6. I'm glad you do.

  7. Oh, and this time I did a more thorough search: Luke 2:22-40 appears on the First Sunday After Christmas in Year B as the gospel passage.

    I stand happily corrected.