by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
For some people, the only thing they’ve ever known about “The 12 Days of Christmas” is from a whimsical song heard throughout the Christmas-shopping season every year, of an outlandish collection of gifts. Very few, however, realize that the 12 days *after* Christmas, up to Theophany, are actually the twelve days of Christmas. Of course, the legend saying that each of these gifts are ancient symbols of a secret, underground, Christian catechism for a persecuted Church is merely an urban-myth (explained here). Rather, for us Orthodox, during these twelve days, there occurs nine incarnational themes, that when fully engaged, meditated upon and acted upon, reveal the impact that God’s human incarnation was meant to have on our lives. Here, the Church offers us ways of becoming restored to our original purpose by unifying ourselves with Christ, so that He is truly being glorified in us.
So how do these “Days of Christmas” till Theophany inform the whole of our lives for healing and living to the glory of Christ?
1. On the 1st day of Christmas (December 25th), the Nativity of our Lord, our God humbles Himself to be born as a mortal baby. There, this very One who created humanity, now shares in our humanity. Even more wondrously here, as He shares in our humanity, He begins restoring our human nature to its intended purpose, to share in His divinity. The mundane and ordinary things of this world are made glorious in Him.
2. On the 2nd day of Christmas (December 26th), the Church celebrates all the feasts associated with the life of the Theotokos. In this, the Church calls our attention to the fact that in the process of Mary’s giving birth to Christ—giving human flesh to God—she became a means for the world’s salvation…including her own. She was the prototype for what it means for us to be God’s living temple—both individually, and collectively—as His Church. So, the second day of Christmas reminds us that, to be a Christian…and to be the Church…we must imitate her in becoming a living temple of God, for our own salvation and for the world’s.
3. On the 3rd day of Christmas (December 27th), we celebrate the first Christian martyr, the Deacon Stephen, who was stoned to death by Jewish extremists because of His unwavering faith in Jesus as the fulfillment of the long-awaited Messiah. As a holy martyr, Stephen was a true “witness” of the incarnation of God’s Son. The Greek word for “martyr” (μάρτυς) gets translated into English as “witness.” For two days, the Church asks us to meditate on how we are being such witnesses (μάρτυρές), taking up our cross to follow Christ.
4. On the 5th day of Christmas, (December 29th), we remember King Herod’s horrific slaying of the infants. When King Herod heard a prophecy about the birth of a new King, he became so fearful of losing power, that he even insisted his own young child be murdered that day. How often the Herod of our own heart fears losing its power and tries to kill any possibility of Christ’s rule over our heart. Remembering the nightmarish ending of Herod’s own life…caused by his thirst for power, the Church urges our vigilance, pondering how to prevent the Herod of our own heart from murdering every possibility of Christ being born there as King.
5. On the first Sunday after Christmas, we commemorated the blood-relatives of Christ: King David (the psalmist); Joachim & Anna (Mary’s parents); Joseph (the aged widower who, in betrothal, was given care over the Theotokos—also becoming Jesus’ adoptive father); and James, the adopted step-brother of our Lord (Joseph’s prior son by his widow). Each of these saints remind us how to worship God—allowing Him to captivate every thought…making Him the center of every part of our lives.
6. On January 1st (the eighth day of Christmas…besides being Saint Basil’s Feast Day), we always celebrate our Lord’s circumcision—Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s covenant between Him and His people. With this physical circumcision, Israelites were instructed, most especially, to also circumcise their hearts—in other words, to recognize that they had entered a spiritual commitment to live out the qualities of obedience to God's will. So too, the Church invites us on this day to mindfully circumcise our hearts, cutting away all fleshly desires, to offer the whole of our lives to our Lord in constant acts of obedience, as acts of worship.
7. On the 10th day of Christmas (January 3rd), we celebrate the Prophet Malachi (whose name means, God’s messenger). Malachi brought God’s message to the Jews after they had been away, living as POWs under Babylonian captivity for 70 years. When reading the prophet, it becomes evident that God is not only speaking to those Jews, but also to all of us who suffer in captivity to our sin. Through Malachi, God says that He will hold back the wrath we’re experiencing if we will simply return to Him. He instructs us all to restore ourselves as a people set apart unto God. Malachi was sent as God’s messenger to instruct God’s people in how to do that. Around 400 years before the birth of Christ, he foretold the coming Messiah as the “Sun of Righteousness who would come with healing on his wings.” The message of Malachi reminds us that God’s salvation doesn’t come individually, but through repentance as a community devoting ourselves to fulfilling Christ’s will together.
8. On the 11th day of Christmas (Friday, January 4th), we commemorate the 70 apostles being sent forth…the first fruits of those sent out into the world to offer the witness of Christ’s Good News (Luke 10:1-16). The Church reminds us on this day, through a remembrance of these 70 men and women that…just as Mary received and then bore-forth the infant Christ in his Nativity…now it’s our turn to receive and bear Him forth into the rest of the world. In the Creed we say that we are the Apostolic Church (which means “sent with a message). Therefore, all of us who call ourselves Orthodox Christians are called by our Lord (Mark 16:15) to take this message into all of creation, of the Good News of His life-death-resurrection-and-ascension, just as these first apostles and disciples of Christ did.
9. On the 12th day of Christmas (Saturday, January 5th) at the small Blessing of the Waters, we enter through the gates of Theophany, where God reveals Himself as Trinity to us. At our Lord’s baptism, Christ is revealed as the Man who is also truly God, who is from before all time and the Creator of the universe. That revelation illuminates the whole world, transforming all of humanity and the rest of creation with the light of eternal perspective. When God touches the earth through the waters of the Jordan River, He sanctifies all of creation re-unifying it with the divine. In the prayers, Blessing the Waters, we ask God to illumine our sight that we may begin to see all of creation intimately related to Him and fulfilled in Him. As we become ever more unified with Him in this blessing…as co-workers with Him, we enter the world continuing to sanctify it as an offering of His divine presence.
Through these 12 Days of Christmas, the Church reminds us that true unity with Christ and true healing through Him involves both the receiving and giving of Christ, as we say in our Eucharistic prayers, “the One who is received and the One who is distributed.” Since we have entered into, engaged with, and meditated upon these 12 days, let’s also act upon them, becoming healed by Christ, fulfilling what we say when we greet each other, “Christ is born! Glorify Him!”