Just before Christmas Day , I was lucky enough to enjoy the evening at President Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, and to be there for the first (probably to become annual) Christmas Grand Illuminations. It was a great deal of fun, overcrowded as most such events are in the Washington area, but the evening was just cold enough to feel of the season but not so cold as to be painful (particularly thanks to my newly acquired long underwear, purchased for our trip to Colorado). The evening was festive, the fireworks spectacular.
The most interesting portion of the program, however, was the welcome offered by George and Martha…well, not really George and Martha, but a couple of actors doing a very fine representation of George and Martha. George talked about his memories of Christmas as a boy and while leading his forces against the British. Martha, on the other hand, quietly reminded us all to remember the real meaning of the season. She described in detail her Christmases along the plantations and farms of the Potomac. She joyfully painted a picture of the then common and now almost lost practice of the true twelve days of Christmas: the long church services of the 24th and the 25th, followed by visiting and feasting for twelve days, ending with the largest celebration and gifts on January 6. Today, we reverse that process and many, even those involved in a community of faith, will consider Christmas over and done with on the 25th when the meal is over and the paper remaining from the gifts is cleared away. Oh yes, many of us of in all kinds of denominations, both liturgical and free-will, have once again adopted the practice of Advent, with its longing and hope and waiting for the darkness to be fulfilled by the coming of the light. And some carefully, if only with a sense of obligation, note the passing of the saints’ and feast days between, finally landing with a sigh of relief on the day of the Epiphany of our Lord? But how many church communities still have a service on Christmas Day, let alone provide any kind of guidance or even acknowledgement that Christmas is more than a day? How many churches took the easy way out and offered a service of lessons and carols on this First Sunday after Christmas, figuring that, if anyone was in attendance at all, the pews would be filled mostly with visitors and strangers so why bother with anything else? Thus, programming concedes to the consumerist nature of the season rather than standing against it by once again offering a worship that asks nothing of those in the pews.
And yet the Lectionary cycle reminds us that Christmas is a season, a season that represents a beginning of a greater season. It is not an ending in itself. The days that follow the glory and mystery of the Nativity story also invite us through Christmas to the Epiphany of our Lord and onward, towards Ash Wednesday and the next great liturgical season of our faith. We are, right now (as we often find ourselves), living through the days between — the days between the birth and the resurrection, the days between the birth of our Lord and the birth of our church. Martha Washington reminded me of this.
Martha’s reminder led me to the pages of Marcia Falk’s book The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (2014). When Rabbi Falk refers to the “days between”, she is making reference to the days in the Jewish calendar that pass between Rosh Hashanah (literally, the “head of the year”), the celebration of New Year in which the community observes the “turning of the year (or t’shuvat hashanah)” and Yom Kippur (literally, the day of Atonement). In the Jewish tradition, these days between are called the Aseret Y’mey T’shuvah (the Ten Days of Returning), a time of taking stock, a time of turning away from ordinary matters of the world, a time to reflect on where you have been during the last year and where you are going in the next. Ten days spent meeting yourself face-to-face; ten days devoted to opening the heart to change.
What if we too, reclaimed these twelve days of Christmas, these days in-between, for this kind of “returning”? Oh, some of us spend some time making New Year’s resolutions and cleaning our closets, but those are both traditions derived from our secular present and our pagan past. What if we truly embraced the liminality of these twelve days –the days between the birth of Jesus and the adoration of the Magi and the first declaration that he was born the King of the Jews (even though this story appears only in one Gospel account, Matthew 2:1-12)? To do so, we must also embrace the “in-between” nature of these days and of all of life. We live between between light and dark, dusk and dawn, birth and death, just as in the great story that is the liturgical year in the Christian church.
I know that I ask too much; that as a missional church in a hostile culture we will never find twelve days to devote to this kind of reflection. But perhaps, a few of us on our own, can find some small remembrance that the season has just begun for us, that there is much to ponder. And perhaps, for just a few moments each day, we might meet ourselves and perhaps our God, face-to-face.