The author of Ephesians calls himself a servant of the gospel according to God’s grace, and describes his mission in Ephesians 3 where he writes that God’s grace has been given to him in order that he might “make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God.” The plan of the mystery has been revealed – unveiled, if you will. That’s what the Christmas cycle, including the Feast of The Epiphany of Our Lord is really about.
We’ve chosen to read the lessons appointed for the Feast of the Epiphany today on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, but I’m not just going to preach on the story of the wise men from the East and King Herod, because there’s a whole lot more going on here than what we get around to reading on these couple of Sundays included in the 12 day season of Christmas.
And, let’s be honest, a lot of us haven’t participated in any public worship since Christmas Eve. And, as a faith community, we’ve made the conscious decision to not worship on the various feasts and commemorations that mark this short season, like the day after Christmas, which is the Lesser Feast of Stephen, Deacon and Martyr.
We read about Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles when there arise conflicts between various factions of the early Church – I know! Right? Can you imagine a Church with conflicts?
Like every congregation I’ve ever been aware of in my life, the early Church in Jerusalem has issues, because rather than celebrating their diversity, and seeing it as a gift, and trying to find ways to work together, and to accommodate each other’s differences, and to honor one another as being of equal value in the sight of God, the Jewish and Hellenist Christians start backbiting, and disrespecting one another. So the leaders try to work out a solution by raising up deacons – table servers – Stephen among them. But Stephen becomes more than a table server, and as a result of his public preaching of Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord, he is stoned to death by those opposed to these people who are following Jesus.
This lesser feast falls on the 2nd day of Christmas, which seems to me to be a very oddly placed feast…
Then, on the 3rd day of Christmas, we keep the Lesser Feast of John, Apostle and Evangelist – the only one of the 12 that tradition holds died of old age, rather than being martyred.
Now, as the evangelist who wrote the Gospel of John, beginning with the poem that reveals Jesus as the Word Made Flesh, this seems to fit better with the season, at least. But the Gospel appointed for this feast is from the end of John’s Gospel, and the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus on the shore. A resurrection account used to mark the Incarnation, which seems to be a rather odd thing to read on the 3rd day of Christmas. But there it is…
Then, on the 4th day of Christmas, we keep the Lessor Feast of The Holy Innocents.
This is a dark feast, to be sure, as we remember what happens after the wise men leave, going home by another road, and Herod realizes that he’s been tricked. But it’s out of time here – it’s out of sequence. This story should come after January 6th.
It should come after The Feast of the Epiphany, not before it. But here it is, on the 4th Day of Christmas. And on this day we remember, not only the innocent victims of Herod’s wrath in Bethlehem, but all innocent victims from all times and places, and in the Prayer of the Day appointed for this feast we ask God to frustrate the designs of all evil tyrants, and to establish God’s own reign of justice, love and peace. The very reign of God we hear the angels announce to Mary in Advent, and to the shepherds in the field on Christmas Eve. And still we live in a world of innocent victims wherein the fullness of God’s promise remains unrealized.
And it seems to me an odd thing to dwell on innocent victims during this 12 day feast of Christmas…
Finally, on the 8th Day of Christmas, we keep the Lessor Feast of the Name of Jesus, the name which means literally: God Saves. And as we approach the end of this 12 Day Christmas Feast we’re reminded of what it’s all about in the end – that salvation has come to us in the Word made Flesh who bridges our divisions, and comes to reign in peace; who bids us to come and follow him, even when doing so means we face a death like his, in order that we might share in a resurrection like his; who stands with, and dies, himself, for, all of this world’s innocent victims; who comes, himself, as the Eternal Light that no darkness will ever overcome;
The One whose name is Jesus – Yeshua / Joshua – a name that says it all. The name that announces that God Saves!…
Which brings us, finally, to the end of this Christmas Cycle, and to the feast we keep 13 days after Christmas: The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord.
In and through these many lessors feasts that fall during this Christmas Feast we are reminded that Christmas happens in lots of unusual ways and places, and not just in the candlelit singing of Silent Night, or the many other sweet and sentimental things we repeat, year after year, as we keep Christmas Eve together.
If the incarnation means anything in the real world experience of believers – if the Word becoming flesh and living among us means anything – then it means God in Christ is doing just that: living among us in all the stuff of life, not just the sweet, easy, sentimental, neat and tidy stuff of life. Christmas – the Incarnation of the Word – happens also in hospital rooms, and nursing homes, and wherever loved ones are sick, and suffering, and dying; in rehab centers where people struggle with addictions and other destructive and often deadly self-abusive behaviors; in jail cells where people are cut off from society, punished, we pray, for crimes they’ve actually committed, and not as the result of miscarriages of earthly justice (though, either way, such people are trapped in systems that do next to nothing to effect restitution or rehabilitation).
And Christmas comes in the stoning of Stephen, and the death of innocent children at the hand of an earthly tyrant, as well as in the proclamation of evangelists like John, and the naming of God’s Son according to what the angel instructed at his conception: You shall name him Jesus, for he will save the people from their sin.
And it comes in star-led outsiders – magicians, astrologers, strangers, outsiders, people of other faith traditions than ours whom God chooses and calls, and leads to the child Jesus by the movements of a mysterious star that leads them from somewhere in modern-day Iraq, and settles over the place where the Holy Family is staying in Bethlehem.
Christmas comes in all these ways and more, reminding us to never get too comfortable with what we think we know about who God is, and what God’s going to do next, or how God’s going to do whatever it is that God’s going to do next.
God comes and dwells with us in and through the coming of Christ Jesus as a peasant baby born in a barn; as an itinerant preacher upsetting the religious status quo; as a rabble rouser and rule breaker; as one unjustly condemned and executed; as one who proclaims God’s word of grace and truth to any and all who’ll listen; as one who calls, gathers and enlightens people of every tribe, language, nation and tongue (even the likes of us!); as the one saves us all by his death and resurrection…
Taken on their own, each of these pieces of this Christmas cycle might seem strange and out of place, but taken as a whole, we see the deep truth of what it really means that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him would not perish but would have everlasting life; For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
And with that, let me wish you all a Merry 11th day of Christmas! Amen.