January 5, 2014
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
We all know the carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas. But what twelve days is it referring to? The Twelve Days extend from Christmas day, December 25, and run to the feast of the Epiphany, January 6. We are celebrating Epiphany today because in the United States we move Epiphany to the closest Sunday. But you get the idea. Christmas is not a feast that we celebrate on one day but rather a feast that we celebrate for twelve days. We do this for two reasons.
The first is when we look at the size of the gift that we have received at Christmas, the gift of the Eternal Word made flesh, that gift is enormous. Today’s first reading from Isaiah says that gift of Christ is a light to all nations. Today’s second reading, from the Letter to the Ephesians, talks about Christ being given to all humanity, both Jew and Gentile alike. So when we recognize how great the gift is that we have received, it takes more than one day to celebrate it. That is why tradition has given us twelve. But there is a second reason why we need twelve days at Christmas. It results from what we are expected to give. When we recognize how much we have received, the gift of God’s own son, then it becomes clear to us that we must give to others in light of that tremendous gift. That is more giving than we usually imagine. It is for this reason that both in tradition and in song, gifts are given not only on the first day of Christmas but on each of the twelve days.
That is a lot of gifts to give. In fact every year on-line someone goes around to establish the cost of three French hens and ten lords-a-leaping to total up all the gifts at current prices. This year the cost came out at $24,430. Surprisingly, the most expensive item was seven swans-a-swimming. Those birds are $1000 apiece. The cheapest gift was the maids-a-milking. For $58 you can get all eight of them. (I believe that is below minimum wage.) Even more importantly, if you take the song literally, on each of the twelve days of Christmas you are expected to give not only the gift for that day but also all the previous gifts over again. When calculated this way, the full cost of the gifts at today’s prices is $107,300. That’s a big number. But its very size makes clear how much we are expected to give. And, of course, what we are expected to give is not six geese-a-laying or a partridge in a pear tree. We are expected to give lives that are in conformity with the Gospel of Christ. We are expected to give the benefit of the doubt to the person who irritates us, comfort to those who are suffering, support to those who are poor, respect to those with whom we disagree, and forgiveness to our enemy.
One cannot put a price on that kind of giving. But it certainly costs us. The demands of the Gospel that are placed upon us are significant and real. So how are we to give on this high a level? How can we afford to pay the price? Only by stretching the payments out over time. We are not sure why the early Christians set the dates for Christmas and Epiphany twelve days apart. But the most attractive explanation is that the twelve days were meant to reflect the twelve months of the year. In this way, the Christmas season tells us that we do not have just twelve days to do what Christ asks us to do. We have twelve months. And if we have a whole year to give, then we can pay in smaller installments. We can give in simpler ways.
We might not be able to eliminate prejudice from our hearts in one fell swoop, but we can decide to resist the temptation of making comments and telling jokes that denigrate other people. We might not have the resources to eliminate the poverty around us, but we can choose to offer some contribution on a regular basis that will make a difference. We might not be able to forgive our enemy, but we can choose to pray each week for him or her and ask God to give us the strength to forgive.
When we look at how much we have received, the amount that we are expected to give is enormous. That is why Christ gives us time to make the payments. So choose today to take a small step in the right direction, and let Christ guide you. The twelve days of Christmas are now over. But the twelve months of 2014 have just begun.