The Twelve Days of Christmas:
Of Mirth and Martyrdom

Are you enjoying these Twelve Days of Christmas? Do you know how the popular tradition started?

Although most movies portray the Wise Men worshiping Jesus right along with the Shepherds, Scriptures point to a later time (up to two years) when they arrived:

"And when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and fell down and worshiped Him..." (Matthew 2:11)

"Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men." (Matthew 2:16)

Christians sincerely wanted to find the accurate birth date of Christ, but they faced challenges once they separated from Judaism, which followed a twelve month/thirty day lunar calendar that had to be adjusted every so often with a new month, but only by the Sanhedrin's decree.

Greek Christians in the East followed their own solar calendar, which put observance days at odds with their brethren in the West who followed the calendar of the Roman Empire.

In 300 A.D., the Greek calendar was superseded by the Roman. Therefore, the Eastern churches mark the birth of Christ on January 6th; in the West its December 25th.

The Western Christians in the Roman empire began celebrating the Nativity around 380 A.D. Eastern Christians considered Epiphany to be a greater feast. To them, the day commemorated two Incarnational appearances--at the beginning of Jesus' life and at the beginning of His ministry (the day he was baptized in the Jordan and His divine Sonship proclaimed--Matthew 3:13-17).

Epiphany eventually came to the West, but Since December 25th (The Feast of the Nativity) was already an established celebration, it was honored on January 6th as the appearing of the star that guided the arrival of Gentile Magi, who gave gifts and worshiped Christ.

Hence, the Twelve Days of Christmas from The Nativity to Epiphany!

This is traditiionally a season of great rejoicing for Christians--full of merriment, food, games and music. Children dress up and put on plays, gifts are given on each of the days (better than Santa's one night, huh?) and don't forget the delicious Wassail!

Amid this festive time, however, there are three days that call believers to what seems a contradictory somberness...observances that at first, seem awkward and out of place.

December 26th
-The Feast of Stephen, honoring the Church's first adult martyr
(Remember the song, Good King Wenseslaus? He looked out "on the feast of Stephen". He, too, was martyred for his faith.)
December 27th-The Feast of St. John, honoring the beloved disciple
December 28th-The Feast of the Holy Innocents, honoring all the male children of Bethlehem and surrounding regions, two years old and younger, who were slaughtered by order of Herod--Christendom's first martyrs!

Church tradition tells us that John was the only disciple to die a natural death at a ripe old age, so why is he included?

The early Church tied them together this way:

Stephen- a martyr in blood, will, and love
John-a martyr in will and love
Innocents-martyrs in blood

The Church notes John's persecutions--imprisonment, banishment to Patmos, and the unsuccessful attempts to poison him and later burn him alive in a vat of searing oil; yet, even toward the end of his life, his message remained the same: "Love one another". He was a living martyr!

In other words:

All believers are called to die UNTO Christ (like John)

Many die BECAUSE of Christ everyday around the world (like Stephen)

Some die in Christ's STEAD (like the children)

Dying in Christ's stead means that you take another's place in order that he or she may live; this can be literal or figurative. You "become them", as the children did while Jesus was whisked safely to Egypt.

When you die "as another", you are representing the costly intercession of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. You may choose this path or have it thrust upon you.

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you." (John 15:13,14)

Still, why mingle martyrdom and mirth during this season?

Look at the gifts brought to the Christ child--gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Christian life is not either/or but both/and---meaning we experience joy and suffering, triumphs and tragedies. Noted Christian author and pastor Rick Warren once described life as having two train tracks--opposite, yet always running parallel. Both are necessary or the train will derail.

We may be celebrating in one area of our life, only to be deeply afflicted in another at the same time.

Life is a blend of the divine gifts to us of gold (victory and gain), frankincense (joy and peace), and myrrh (bitterness and loss).

All of these feast days were not spent in quiet introspection, though.

On St. Stephen's Day, it was and remains in many parts of the world a day for giving food, money, and other items to servants, service workers and the needy. In some places it is known as "Boxing Day" since these gifts are "boxed up" and delivered. The custom follows the heart of a deacon, like Stephen, to serve.

The blessing of wine is associated with St. John's Feast, which is taken home from church by the father. He shares it in the name of St. John with each member of his family as he imparts a blessing. The wine is then taken to the sick and distressed.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents is also called Childermas (Mass of the Children).

It honors our children as our little brothers and sisters in the Lord. A fun custom is for the youngest child to be "in charge" for the day. He or she decides the day's foods, drinks, music and entertainments. (If you have more than one child, it may be wise to divide these honors!)

The classic Coventry Carol speaks of the Bethlehem sacrifices and is sung on this day.

Christians who still observe this feast often include the millions of aborted babies with the Holy Innocents in their prayers, acknowledging that the dynamics which drove Herod to infanticide, along with the likes of Pharaoh (Exodus 1), still prevail in the earth. It is a time of intercession for children and spiritual warfare against the forces that "seek the seed".

From the beginning, satan was warned that one day he would be undone by the Seed of a woman (Genesis 3:15). That woman was Mary and the Seed was God, the Son in human flesh.

Forensically, satan's authority was undone at the Cross, but if given power gained by deceit, satan will attempt to kill the seed that Jesus redeemed:

"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy." (John 10:10)

the seed (children) through murder--abortion, war and violent acts

Steal their minds and hearts with vain indoctrinations

Destroy their potential, mar and distort the image and likeness of God in their lives

It saddens the heart to think of the deaths of these innocent children, but we can be glad that they are now in the presence of God and nurtured by the Church at rest. One day they will return to earth with Him in glory!

Until then, let's be thankful for the bitter and the sweet...for God works all things out for our good and His eternal purposes.

A young man who hated Christians and was one of the chief persecutors of the church attended the stoning of Stephen and held the coat of one of the executioners. He later converted and wrote most of the New Testament. His name was Paul.

Throughout our lives we will drink from many cups, but the love of Christ can overcome the "poison", as it did for John. Men, have you spoken a blessing over each of your family members? When was the last time you took communion together as a family?

Although children may needlessly die on this fallen earth through violence, miscarriage, disease or injury, they are not lost in eternity, but are safely gathered in the Father's arms to one day be reunited with us.

Therefore, rejoice! Sing the silly "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and try to remember who leaps, who pipes, and who dances. And by all means, save some Wassail for me!

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