Inspired by a mixture of a friend's retreat in daily life, the disciplined priests of my early Christian formation and being locked down, I decided to take up something new; celebrating Mass every day of the Twelve Days of Christmas. No longer the prelude of dry January, this was to be a proper Christmastide celebration.
I have not tried this before, both because of family commitments and an inability to gather a congregation between Christmas and New Year. Streaming to YouTube St Vedast channel has given a virtual gathering and family commitments are curtailed. So what has this series of celebrations offered?
There is wisdom in our post Christmas calendar. No sooner do we celebrate a birth on Christmas Day, than we commemorate a martyr’s death on Boxing Day. St. Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith, prefigures the violence of Christ’s suffering. Then we recall the philosophical underpinning of the nativity scenes, not shepherds or kings but the extraordinary insights of St. John; “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Then once more plunged into violence as we recall how Herod killed the children around Bethlehem while trying to extinguish a King, whose kingdom would be so different to his own.
Then the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, murdered in his own cathedral in a struggle between church and state. A reminder that the babe laying in a manger calls his followers to speak truth to power. A day with no saints is followed by John Wycliffe, a Catholic priest who translated the Bible into English as a forerunner to the reformation. The English Bible was thought so dangerous that, following his death, his bones were exhumed and burnt. A reminder, perhaps, of what we now take for granted but which did arouse such passions.
I’m looking forward to the remaining twelves days with the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus on New Year’s Day, firmly showing his Jewish inheritance and traditionally starting his earthly life bleeding for his inherited law, to end it bleeding for the new law of love. The mystical writers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus are commemorated on 2 January while Epiphany completes the Twelve Days with the symbolic journey of the wise men foretelling, through their gifts, Christ as King, Priest and Sacrifice; celebration and desolation combined.
It’s a roller coaster of joy and grief, mystery and politics, philosophy and faith; echoing the roller coaster this year of isolation and spending, fear and hope, vaccines and variants. We have seen heroic responses and panic buying, experienced both new friendships and loneliness. 2021 will be better but for now we both mourn and look forward.
With love and prayers for 2021