The following letter was written for my students at Brown & RISD, and sent to them via email on December 31, 2014 — the Seventh Day of Christmas this year in addition to being New Year’s Eve. Tonight Christmas is still on my mind, and since it is also the Twelfth (and final) Night of Christmastide I thought it might be fitting to post the text of the letter here. Consider it a brief seasonal meditation from someone who is always sad to see Christmas pass into the year’s rear-view mirror.
This note brings Christmas greetings, for the Seventh Day of Christmas (also known as New Year’s Eve). I hope you all are keeping jolly with your various swans a-swimming, partridges in pear-trees, and other festive accoutrements.
Some of you may be unfamiliar with Christmas as a season rather than as just a day, so I thought I would write a few words here in the interests of enlightening the whole group.
Seven is a familiar number in Scripture: seven days of creation, seventy “weeks” of exile in Babylon, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven lamps for the seven churches at the beginning of Revelation; the seventh day a day of sabbath rest; you can probably come up with more. It is a number of completion, of finitude. In Christian theology, the number eight serves as an additional commentary on the number seven. The new creation follows from the old, but begins a new thing: it is the eighth day of the week, the last of the old and the first of the new, no longer finite, now without end in the eternal splendor of God’s glory. The major feasts of the Christian year are celebrated on their day, but the festal spirit continues for eight days – called an “octave” (those of you who are musical will catch the connection!). This gives us time to celebrate the person or event the feast commemorates, but it also forces us to look forward to the day when that which the holiday inaugurates will be experienced in full.
There are a few dozen feasts in our calendar with “octaves” following them. But two are so significant that their octaves are extended, and their respective celebrations are carried across a longer span of time. Those two are Christmas and Easter. Easter’s octave is especially long: fifty days (basically a mirror image of Lent but slightly longer), in which every day is celebrated as though it were Easter Sunday itself. Christmas is the other one: with a less exhausting, twelve-day octave, beginning with Christmas Day (hence the famous “Twelve Days of Christmas” motif, and “Twelfth Night” parties, and the Shakespeare play). What would be the “thirteenth” day of Christmas is the feast of the Epiphany: January 6, when the three kings make visits to the baby Jesus with gifts, an occasion referred to theologically as “The Manifestation to the Gentiles.”
The twelve days between Christmas Day and the Epiphany are known as “Christmastide” — consisting essentially of the extended Christmas octave, and composing the shortest “season” of the church year. Along with Easter, the proper liturgical color of the season is gold (where churches possess it, otherwise white). They are days of especially intentional celebration, and of prayer: in the words of one of the Christmas collects, that “we might be made partakers of his divinity who humbled himself to share our humanity.” This is the central mystery of the Christian Gospel: that Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant rabbi and son of a carpenter, executed in the first century for what amounts to sedition, is the Son of God, the Messiah of Jewish expectation, the incarnate Word by whom all things were made, and the One in whom all things will be brought to their perfection in the presence of his Father and ours.
Christmas is therefore an intensely theological feast, full of subtleties and compounding images. And yet for all its subtlety, there is also something instantly recognizable about it, something very intimate, and always fresh. Christmas is not nearly so explosive as Easter: there are no earthquakes, no armies, no mobs; no “death of death, and hell’s destruction.” Only a quiet night in a small town with a proud heritage from too long ago to overcome the poverty of the present. Shepherds doing what they had done for millennia. Townspeople reacting as you might expect under the frustrating weight of yet another seemingly arbitrary imperial decree. In such a place as this, full of the long sweep of human normalcy, the threads of salvation were being woven together in startling array: despite the darkness of the night outside, despite the ancient, seemingly unalterable patterns which life was known to take. A line from 16th century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert puts it this way: “O Thou, whose glorious yet contracted light, wrapped in night’s mantle, stole into a manger: since my dark soul and brutish is thy right, be not to man of all beasts a stranger.” Christmas is intensely theological, and yet in the same breath at the same time it is deeply personal: promising a newness, a freshness, which is also strangely a homecoming.
In the face of such quiet grace as this, we can do nothing but wonder at God’s love, and adore the Child in his mother’s arms. Can it be true? The shepherds say they heard angels singing, and wise men from the east were seen bringing rich and precious gifts. We go to Bethlehem too, to see for ourselves. What will we do when we arrive? Will we bring gifts? Will we ask questions? Will we pledge our service? However we are inclined to respond, our hearts are brought up short before the baby and his mother. There is no service a newborn can reward, no questions a sleeping baby can field, no gift his tiny hands can open. Before the manger our hearts stop their striving, and they behold a scene of pure Love. This Child does not require gifts; he is himself the gift, to you, to me, to the whole world. We can only open our hearts to him, and love him in return.
This free exchange of love is at the heart of the whole feast. It is the source of the freshness we intuit at the manger, and the assurance of new life which the Incarnation promises. In loving the Christ child we are brought through all the subtleties of philosophy and theology to the Thing Itself: Emmanuel, God With Us, to be himself our firmest friend and our eternal home.
I will leave you with a Christmas Carol I’ve only just discovered in the last few days, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” Maybe you know it already, but if so it’s worth repeating. The words were written by Frances Chesterton, wife of the prolific 19th/20th century English author, apologist, and commentator G.K. Chesterton. This poem has been set to music several times since it was written, but the version I’ve linked below is my favorite – an adaptation of a 16th century English folk melody. I hope you find it as charming as I did.
With continued prayers, every blessing for a happy Christmastide and joyful New Year, and all good wishes for a refreshing break-
How far is it to Bethlehem?
Words: Frances Chesterton
Music: 16th century English folk melody (adapted)
How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star?
Can we see the little child,
Is he within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?
May we stroke the creatures there,
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
If we touch his tiny hand
Will he awake?
Will he know we’ve come so far
Just for his sake?
Great kings have precious gifts,
And we have naught,
Little smiles and little tears
Are all we brought.
For all weary children
Mary must weep.
Here, on his bed of straw
Sleep, children, sleep.
God in his mother’s arms,
Babes in the byre,
Sleep, as they sleep who find
Their heart’s desire.