2 Christmas Proper B2
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
January 4, 2009
MARKING TIME UNTIL EPIPHANY
TEXT: (v. 16) “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.”
Today is the second Sunday after Christmas. This is a Sunday that doesn’t appear on the Church’s liturgical calendar every year. With the way things coincide with the regular calendar, there is frequently only one Sunday after Christmas. Allow me to explain this a bit further.
The Christmas season is twelve days long, beginning on the 25th of December, and continuing on until the day of Epiphany, which is the 6th of January. This is the basis of that Christmas folk tune entitled “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” that talks about 12 drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping, 10 lords a-leaping, 9 ladies dancing, 8 maids a-milking, 7 swans a-swimming, 6 geese a-laying, 5 golden rings, 4 colley birds, 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Before I continue, allow me to point out one very common mistake in this song. People frequently sing: “Four calling birds.” That’s not what the song says. It’s “Four colley birds,” which are black birds. There is no such thing as a “calling” bird. Have you ever heard of a calling bird, or could you tell me what one is? But I digress.
The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days of celebration connected with the birth of Christ. Wouldn’t it be kind of cool to have a twelve day birthday party on our own birthday?
If you were of the Eastern Orthodox faith, this is exactly what happens. Christmas Eve is a strict day of fasting. The fast is then broken on Christmas Day, and the celebrating begins. Every day of the twelve days of Christmas is a day of celebrating and feasting. Eastern Orthodox members will often take turns hosting parties at their homes, and the members can attend as many or as few as they wish. Of course all of this has rich symbolic meaning, with the main theme being Jesus, the true God who has taken upon himself the flesh of humanity and came to this earth to redeem sinful mankind. And central to this celebration is the worship life of the church.
The popular “Twelve Days of Christmas” song also has some symbolism attached to it. Originally it was a Hebrew hymn entitled “In those twelve days…” Sometime in the middle ages, it was translated into Latin with Christian imagery. It was translated into English around 1645, and by the beginning of the 18th century it became the song we know today.
During the reign of King Henry VIII, the Roman Catholic faith had become suppressed in England. Legend has it that this Christmas song became a tool to teach the catechism to young Roman Catholics. The original Latin version has a verse to the song of which most people are unaware. It goes like this: “Tell me, what are the twelve things? Twelve apostles; Eleven stars seen by Joseph; Ten Commandments of God; Nine choirs of angels; Eight beatitudes; Seven sacraments (in the Roman Catholic Church, that is); Six water jars in Cana of Galilee; Five Books of Moses; Four Evangelists; Three Patriarchs; Two Testaments; and One God who reigns in Heaven.” And no, I have no idea what the tune might be.
So here we are. Today is the eleventh day of Christmas. It is also the second Sunday after Christmas. And what we’re doing is basically marking time until Epiphany. As far as the merchants are concerned, Christmas is over and done with. The decorations are dwindling with the merchandise being marked down somewhere between 50 and 75 percent or even more. And on a recent visit to Shopko, I noticed that the aisles were filling up with Valentine’s Day stuff. Christmas is so quickly and easily forgotten by so many.
Speaking for myself, my Christmas decorations don’t come down until after January 6th. As a Christian I feel that by doing so, I am in some way making a statement of faith. When people ask me about it, I am very quick to point out that the Christmas season is twelve days long, and I intend to celebrate it. We live in a world that is so quick to start it (even in October!), and just as quick to get it over with. I can’t begin to tell you how many Christmas trees are out at the curb within a few days of Christmas Day.
Now is the time for Christians to really shine. The commercialism that tends to crowd out and overshadow the celebration of Christmas is completely gone. And what’s left is the true reason for our celebration. Our attention has been now turned away from Santa Claus and presents and the other meaningless trappings, as we continue our celebration with Jesus as our main focal point.
For years, it seems that the Church has looked at this Second Sunday after Christmas as a way to mark time until Epiphany. Some have called it “vacant Sunday,” meaning that there are no specific “propers,” meaning the introits, collects, antiphons, or graduals for that day. If there is a Second Sunday after Christmas in any given year, the propers for the First Sunday after Christmas are simply repeated. Even in the three year lectionary cycle, the same readings are used regardless of the specific year.
The Gospel lesson which is our text for today is part of the historic lectionary, dating back to the early days of the Church. And if the Gospel lesson for today sounds familiar, it is probably because it was part of the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Advent, scarcely three weeks ago.
There are two basic reasons why there’s not a whole lot of variety here. First of all, the Second Sunday after Christmas doesn’t happen all the time. And secondly, there’s a lot going on during those twelve days of Christmas that frequently usurp those after Christmas readings. December 26th is the day commemorating St. Stephen, the martyr. December 27th is the day commemorating St. John, the Apostle. December 28th is the day commemorating the Holy Innocents who were the first martyrs. December 31st is New Year’s Eve. January 1st is the Circumcision and Name of Jesus. I realize that some of these may seem sort of out-of-character for a Christmas celebration, but in fact it brings a certain sense of reality to the whole season.
Today our Gospel reading is from the opening chapter of John’s Gospel. And if there’s anything that bears repeating, this would certainly be somewhere at the top of the list.
Through God’s divine inspiration, John identifies exactly who Jesus is and from whence he came. He didn’t want there to be any doubt in anybody’s mind. He knew that people would come up with ideas of their own. If we look at Matthew 16 where Jesus is talking with his disciples, we can see what people’s ideas were. Reading verses 13-16: “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”
John describes Jesus as the eternal “Logos,” which is Greek for “Word.” Jesus is indeed the Word, the reason behind the creation of the world and the universe. When the world was created, it was all good.
But something went afoul along the line. Sin entered the world. And when sin entered the world, it ceased to be good. Evil had been introduced into that which was perfect.
Because of sin, all of mankind ceased to recognize God and turned to their own sinful ways. Because of this sin, John writes in verses 10-11 of our Gospel lesson: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”
That’s what sin does. Our relationship with God is broken. And that’s what Jesus came to this earth to fix. Our Gospel lesson continues in verses 12-13: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.”
Faith alone is the thing that saves. Jesus came so that all who would believe in him as their Saviour from sin would indeed become children of God, children who are born again from the Holy Spirit, and therefore are part of God’s holy family.
This morning, the verse I read at the beginning is kind of a favorite of mine. I think it’s something that we all need to remember, regardless of the situations we encounter in our lives. Verse 16 states, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.”
If each of us look at our own lives, isn’t this statement true for every one of us? Isn’t this our dose of reality, regardless of how gloomy things might appear? Isn’t this the reason that we celebrate Christmas?
Let’s take a brief look at that verse. God’s grace is his undeserved love. The word “grace” describes a type of love that is neither earned nor deserved. Because of our sins, we deserve absolutely nothing good at all from God; in fact, what we deserve is death and hell. That’s what we deserve, but that’s not what we get. God deals with us not out of anger or spite or revenge, but out of a type of love that surpasses all human understanding. That’s what we call “grace.”
Then the Bible talks about the “fullness” of this grace. God’s love isn’t something that is partial or conditional. God doesn’t keep changing his mind as to whether or not he loves us. His grace and love is full, it is complete, it is perfect.
And out of this perfect grace we receive one blessing after another. Sometimes it isn’t easy to see those blessings in our lives, but they are there just the same. If you think things can get tough as a Christian, can you even begin to imagine what it would be like to go forth without God at our side? Can you imagine how much more difficult things would be?
Our blessings are both physical and spiritual. We receive our life from God, and he provides the means to sustain it. But more importantly, he provides us with spiritual blessings. Jesus came to this earth to save sinners the likes of you and me. Through faith in Christ alone, we receive all of those spiritual blessings offered to us.
At the beginning, I spent awhile explaining the twelve days of Christmas. Those are twelve days we can use to celebrate God’s love given to us in the flesh with the birth of Jesus our Saviour.
Amidst the celebration of the twelve days of Christmas, we have such harsh realities as the stoning of St. Stephen the Martyr, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (those babies killed at the direction of Herod), the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, and the perils and hardships of St. John the Apostle. Even with the circumcision of Jesus, the spilling of blood is an over-riding theme during this time of celebration.
Although the Second Sunday after Christmas has been termed as “vacant” Sunday, we can see that it is anything but vacant. It is indeed full, because as verse 16 of our text for today says, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.”
The twelve days of Christmas is certainly marking time until Epiphany. And as we mark time here, we do so with a spirit of celebration, rejoicing, and thanksgiving. So when Epiphany comes, we will be ready to reveal our Saviour to the nations, letting the light he has brought into our dark souls shine for all to see.