The Twelve Days of Christmas, Part 1:
Why Christmas? Why feast?
by Amanda Gerber
Maybe you’re well aware that once we reach the end of this season of Advent, Christmas actually lasts more than one day. Or maybe you’re new here, and you’re not. (It took me a little while to figure it out!) In fact you might be wondering by now why there’s been nary a “Silent Night” or “Hark, The Herald Angels” to be found on Sunday mornings in December.
How many days of Christmas?
Christmas Day is just the beginning. The baby has been born … we don’t close up shop and go home — it’s just the start of the celebration! A twelve-day celebration to be precise. According to the liturgical calendar that Christians have used for centuries, Christmas starts on December 25 and lasts until January 6, Epiphany. (This helpful website makes it clear whether it is Christmas or not, in case there’s any confusion.)
We don’t hunker down in Advent forever, just waiting and biding time until Jesus comes again. Salvation has come, the kingdom has been ushered in, it’s begun! Yet most Christians (even us liturgical Anglicans) don’t really observe this 12-day ritual. As Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait explain it: “…often the focus falls on giving Advent its due, with the 12 days of Christmas relegated to the words of a cryptic traditional carol. Most people are simply too tired after Christmas Day to do much celebrating.” Celebrating for 12 days sounds great in theory, but thinking through all the logistics is enough to wear us out.
Blogger Greg Goebel (aka “Anglican Pastor”) thinks we should start a “Twelve Days Conspiracy” and bring back Advent followed by a 12-day celebration : “I suspect that at some point we scraped the icing off the cake, trying to get to the good part first. And then we felt too sick to our stomachs to eat the actual cake. The remedy is to save that cake until birthday time, and then cut off a little slice each day, enjoying each bite.”
It’s not uncommon for Christians to question whether we should even participate in Christmas. Between the holiday’s roots in pagan practices, and the wanton consumption, materialism, and selfishness it’s become, what’s left?
Before we go down that path, we must remember that the whole reason we are celebrating is this miracle of the Incarnation—God in the flesh. We cross a dangerous line into dualism or gnosticism when we treat the physical/material world as bad and think that goodness only resides in the spiritual, non-physical realm. We need to acknowledge that there is not one without the other. When Jesus became man, spirit and flesh became forever intertwined.
Instead of pulling away all together, we have the opportunity to redeem something that has arguably become worldly in many ways. Yes, we absolutely must be intentional in looking at how our Christmas liturgies are shaping us, but our celebrations should be an enjoyment of this physical world that’s been given to us, not a denial of it. The problem isn’t the “stuff”; it’s the hearts that take it for granted or struggle to be grateful.
Having said that, we also need to remember that there’s no salvific effect of gift-giving or fun or food or family time on its own. When our celebrating is misdirected, we end up making idols out of the created, rather than worshiping the Creator. And idols always, always let us down. But we can’t just agonize over the world’s false worship in a reactionary way. We are called to worship God, not just do whatever is the opposite of our pagan neighbors. Instead of being overly-reactive, we should be obedient.
Sometimes I struggle with feeling like I need to somehow fit Jesus into a more fun version of Christmas, and I’ve heard others express similar feelings. I think we might be feeling the tension of trying to reconcile Christmas joy with a watered-down Gospel. Deep down we long for our Christmas celebrations to declare truth about God and what He’s done, yet something in us can sense that it’s missing. But I don’t think it has to be this way. We can and should still enjoy all of the magic and deliciousness of Christmas, without guilt, when we open our eyes to see the magnitude of what we are celebrating, when we realize there is something much, much greater at stake in our celebrations. Christmas is an opportunity to celebrate the glorious Gospel in all its fullness.
What are we celebrating?
The sacred side of Christmas has sometimes been reduced to this quaint, charming, static nativity scene. A chubby baby in a manger, with the adoring eyes of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds looking on and angels singing above. It’s a beautiful and meaningful picture, but perhaps it stops short. It’s so familiar that we forget its gravity and magnitude. We forget why it matters so much. Christmas might have begun in humble Bethlehem, but it certainly doesn’t end there.
Christmas isn’t just a baby in a manger; it’s a rescue operation, an invasion. It’s God coming to reclaim His precious treasure that was lost. Heaven invading earth. “Divinity claiming humanity, and never giving it back.” It’s hope for a situation that was completely and utterly hopeless. There was nothing we could do to rescue ourselves. We couldn’t ascend to God, so He descended to us. The highest we can climb on our own comes nowhere close to the heights of the glory and riches God has for us. Christmas is the birth of not just a king but the King.
The heart of Christmas is the Gospel—that God has accomplished fully and completely that which we could never do on our own. Without Christmas, there is no Easter. His birth, death, and resurrection open the door to new life for us. He became like us so we could become like Him.
Christmas doesn’t start with us. It’s only a response to what’s been freely given. We can only love because He first loved. We can only give because He first gave. It humbles us and reminds us that it has nothing to do with us, while simultaneously whisking us up into a story which (as Bishop Ken reminded us recently) has everything to do with us. Christmas is mystery and abundance. The Gospel is too lofty for us to fully comprehend, too great a gift to fully behold. But yet it’s been revealed, made incarnate, given, for us to behold and receive. The goodness that we taste and see in Christmas is only a taste of what’s to come. Even when we don’t fully understand, we can say as Mary did, “Let it be to me according to Your word.”
Advent points us to the hopeless state we were in before God reached in and came down. And Christmas invites us to behold the greatest gift ever given.
How do we celebrate?
Sometimes, fasting is more comfortable than feasting. Sometimes Advent is easier than Christmas. We’re well aware of the brokenness in the world. And in some sense we are living now in Advent, waiting for Jesus to return and restore all things. But as we wait, it’s easy to forget God’s promises. We forget that they will be fulfilled. We forget the magnitude of what He’s done and is doing and all He has in store. We’ve waited so long and our lives look so bleak that it’s hard to celebrate. Sometimes, our feasting reflects our forgetfulness.
On the other hand, we also live in such comfortable circumstances that we become complacent, and we forget how to taste and smell and see the wondrous things before us. John Piper says that “We’ve grown dull to the wonder of ample food and drink through constant use, and overuse. When every day is a virtual feast, we lose the blessing of a real one. When every meal is a pathway to indulgence, not only is fasting lost, but true feasting is as well.” Our feasts look more like consuming than receiving. More like indulging, bingeing, and gluttony than true festivity, merrymaking, and revelry. Sometimes, our feasting reflects our apathy.
Our feasting falls flat or turns into overindulgence when it’s aimed in the wrong direction. But it’s not that we go too far into feasting. It’s that we don’t go far enough into true feasting.
Feasting for twelve days might very well be next to impossible. Our bodies aren’t ready for the feasting to go on forever — not yet. But someday they will be. And we get a taste of that now. Just because we don’t do it perfectly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all (though we are absolutely free to feast or not feast, to celebrate Christmas or not celebrate it). As we feast, we declare the truth and we say without words what we believe, even if we can’t always feel it, or see it clearly. What we really believe is exposed, and simultaneously our belief can be shaped into what it ought to be. Our feasting forms and shapes us into worshipers.
When we feast, we revel in God’s glory, creation, and powerful works. Interestingly, the word revel comes from rebel. Christmas might be, in a certain sense, a rebellion—why? What are we rebelling against? We’re feasting as part of a revolution. We’re feasting because the revolution has started. Darkness no longer reigns. Sin and death have been conquered. Evil will not triumph. Our feasting isn’t dependent on our present circumstances, on what we have or what we lack. Here are a few excerpts of a beautiful “Liturgy for Feasting with Friends” from a wonderful book called Every Moment Holy.
“To gather joyfully
is indeed a serious affair,
for feasting and all enjoyments
gratefully taken are,
at their heart, acts of war.
In celebrating this feast
we declare that
evil and death,
suffering and loss,
sorrow and tears,
will not have the final word…”
“May this shared meal, and our pleasure in it,
bear witness against the artifice and deceptions
of the prince of the darkness that would blind
this world to hope.
May it strike at the root of the life that
would drain life of meaning, and
the world of joy, and suffering of redemption.
May this our feast fall like a great hammer blow
against that brittle night,
shattering the gloom, reawakening our hearts,
stirring our imaginations, focusing our vision
on the kingdom of heaven that is to come,
on the kingdom that is promised,
on the kingdom that is already,
indeed, among us…”
“Take joy! …”
“All will be well!”
(I encourage you to print out the entire liturgy and read it together before your next party or shared meal or before Christmas dinner! We used this on Thanksgiving and it was pretty daggone amazing. If you don’t believe me, ask fellow IACer Michelle Weed.)
We have a hard time feasting because we’re always questioning: Did we really win the revolution? It doesn’t always look or feel like it. That’s why it’s hard for us to feast, and it’s exactly why we should feast. It’s important because it helps us see that the ordinary, plain lives we live are not just ordinary. We’re embodied soul creatures, not mere mortals. Maybe this Christmas thing matters more than we think it does…
A little background on me: my name is Amanda Gerber, and my husband Nicholas and I and our three kids have been attending IAC for almost 5 years. (Well actually there was only one kid that first Sunday we came. Yeah, we’re part of that trend at IAC.) You may have read my post about Advent, and this is a follow-up to that one. As I sat down to write about Christmas, I expected it to be fairly easy. Who doesn’t know Christmas? But it ended up being harder than I expected. I wrestled through ideas and controversies. I examined my own heart and found it lacking. I saw some of my Pharisaic attitudes I’ve struggled with and am still struggling with. What I’ve written I need to hear as much as anyone else. But more than anything, I saw the gospel. It cut me to the heart again as I sat fighting back tears at a coffee shop one Saturday morning.
Come back tomorrow to read about how our family doesn’t do Santa Claus and why I wish we did, thoughts on grief and sadness during the holidays, and practical suggestions for how to celebrate for twelve days.