For most of my life December 26th has simply been “the day after Christmas.” One of the downsides to being raised Southern Baptist is our collective ignorance of the Christian calendar and its telling of the salvation story through the annual rhythms and changes of the seasons. Many, if not most (by a wide margin), of my Baptist brethren have no idea that there are annual observances beyond Christmas and Easter, and we are the poorer for it. While I don’t anticipate donning seasonal regalia or doggedly following a liturgical calendar, I do find myself increasingly mindful of the rich, deep heritage of worship and remembrance we have as believers. Case in point, December 26th.
I am fascinated by the fact that the church calendar places the feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (See the story in Acts 7), on the day following the celebration of Christ’s birth. It is an arresting juxtaposition. Why place this sobering story of death side-by-side with angels, and shepherds, and magi coming to worship? Can we not at least let the babe lie in the manger for awhile without the specter of death? Frankly, it seems out of place. Yet it is not.
While my Baptist heritage kept me mostly in the dark about all things liturgical, my privileged place in the world, as an inhabitant of the United States of America, has shielded me from the stark and difficult realities of believers in much of the rest of the world. My greatest fear the day after Christmas is that my children may beat me to the last piece of Hummingbird cake. This picture of Syrian Christians worshipping amid the rubble of their church paints a very real, and very different reality.
Suddenly the Feast of Stephen makes more sense. It seems the early church understood the necessity of reminding believers of a startling truth; coming to worship the babe in the manger is fraught with danger.
As much as I would like to be like the magi who worshipped, left their gifts, and went back to their star gazing, the Feast of Stephen reminds me that this celebration of Immanuel may cost me my very life. It may cost you yours.
Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? –John 13:38
“O Come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant! O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold Him, born the King of angels. O come let us adore Him! O come let us adore Him! O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!”
These familiar words will be sung in churches all across the world in just a few days. As I consider the startling conversation that has sprung up around the issue of whether or not to have church services on Christmas morning I find myself humming these words. Apparently some pastors are calling off Sunday services to allow families unfettered time to indulge their materialistic gorge-fest of wrapping paper and ribbons, complete with batteries and return receipts, rather than provide them the opportunity to do more than offer lip service to “what the season is really about.” The tired bumper sticker, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” probably needs to be removed from the family vehicle if we chose to celebrate His birthday by not showing up for the celebration.
Granted there will be some with legitimate reasons not to attend a service celebrating the singular event in human history, God becoming flesh, but to think that on this day, of all days, the church doors would be closed is simply stunning. Some will, no doubt, point out an overcrowded travel schedule for the day, while others will be doing their best to shake off the lingering effects of too much to eat and too much to drink the night before. Some will wonder if dragging the kiddos away from their toys will be a possibility and others will discover that the “requires some assembly” sticker was being generous in its estimation of the difficulty involved.
There will always be plausible reasons to stay away, but why would you? What if you missed it because you were too busy? What if the event of all events happened and you found something better to do? What if it happened and you were simply so caught up in your own comings and goings that you missed it?
I am eternally grateful to my friend Carol Douglas for introducing me to The Adoration of Kings in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1597, and I share it with you here in the hopes that it will speak to you as well. You will have to do a bit of searching to find the babe and the wise men for there is much going on in this busy little town; there is water to be drawn, horses to be packed, commerce to be transacted, burdens to be borne, and other sundry, and certainly worthy, projects to be undertaken. The great tragedy is that so many miss the point. So many miss the child. And they still do.
This Sunday I anxiously await the gathering of the faithful as they come to adore. Perhaps we will hear the faint echo of angel voices raised in celebration or catch a glimpse of awestruck shepherds, and maybe, just maybe, if we will cease our strivings for a moment, we too will see the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). “O come let us adore Him!”