I remember coming out of Mass during the Christmas season once when I was a child and asking a question about something that puzzled me. Things seemed out of order. It seemed odd as to why the baby Jesus was born one week, then the next He was an adult being baptized, and then He was an infant again the following week when we celebrated Epiphany. It made no sense to me. I am not sure what answer I got then, but the question bears revisiting.
In our liturgical calendar we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the next day we celebrate the first martyr of the Church, St. Stephen, followed closely by the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Two Sundays after Christmas* is the Baptism of the Lord and then we finally end the Christmas season with the Epiphany. These feasts depict what we learn in the gospels. I know now that the gospels are not history books, though they contain historical facts. The gospels were written to particular audiences of converts who would need to understand specific aspects of who Jesus was and why He came. They are faith books and the truths the gospels contain are to be joined together to get a whole. It is also important to remember the same is true of the liturgical calendar. It is about religious truths, and we are celebrating aspects of the truth of who Jesus is.
After the waiting of Advent we celebrated the Nativity of the Lord, the wondrous events that took place all those years ago at His birth. With the beginning of the Christmas season we are celebrating who He is and why He entered into human history. He came to establish the Kingdom of God and to die. His life would stir up controversy. While He would gain followers and disciples, He would have many enemies, as evil does not want good to win out. His death was to save us all from the power of sin and death by His glorious resurrection, opening the gates of Heaven for us. The attacks of enemies would lead to His final victory in overcoming the very evil which sought to win out. His death is His greatest victory.
Therefore, that we would celebrate the feasts of the first martyr and then the Holy Innocents right after His birth should not surprise us. When the magi came, which we celebrate at the Epiphany, they brought gifts which were representative of Jesus' role as priest, prophet, and king. The gift of gold is a kingly gift, reminding us that Jesus is the King of Heaven and Earth. The gift of frankincense reminds us that Jesus is priestly. In fact, He is the High Priest, who is both the one who makes the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself. The gift of myrrh shows us that He is prophet, not only because He is the Word of God, but because He will die an important death for us. The gift shows that He fulfills all the prophecies made about the Redeemer.
In Matthew's Gospel the visit of the magi is cloaked in danger from the get-go. They are stopped by Herod as they arrive in the area and Herod appears to be interested in the child, as if he, too, would worship, when in truth he wants to kill the baby. Jesus is a newborn when the first attempt at his life is desired. Before the magi leave the child whom they come to adore, an angel warns them to go home another way and not to tell Herod where the child is. They obey, to the consternation of Herod. In his madness (it is madness to see a threat in an innocent child and to want to kill him!) Herod decides all the male children under two have to die in Bethlehem. Again an angel intercedes and Jesus and His family escape. But all the male children in the area are killed by Herod in his attempt to get rid of this newborn king whom he perceives as a threat to his throne. It is a terrible scene. Jesus has not said or done a thing yet, after all He is a baby, and already He is perceived as a threat.
In our liturgy the Church seems to be alerting us to the fact that being a follower of Jesus means we are a threat to evil as well. We need to be aware of what it means to truly be a follower. There are many who would try to thwart our efforts at being a Christian believer. There are temptations, seductions, lies, and cultural "norms" that go against what Jesus teaches us. From the beginning of our lives to the end, the evil one tries to get us to stop being effective followers and believers. I do not have to quote current events for us to see the obvious evils in our world today. Everything from the holy innocents in Connecticut to the recent findings that the fastest growing "religion" in the US is the "nones" (those who claim to have no religious affiliation) is distressing evidence of the forces that are trying to work against belief in Christ and keeping the faith. Culture subtly (and not so subtly) tells us that certain behaviors and activities are really okay, when our faith teaches us that they are not at all acceptable and are sinful. The culture tells us that there is no sin, and that everything is relative. Our culture tells us that it is each person for him or herself, and so “you better get out of my way.” All of these things are evils which are meant to keep us from being followers like Mary and Joseph who gave their lives to serving their Lord, or the magi who came to believe and listen.
In celebrating St. Stephen and the Feast of the Holy Innocents right after Christmas we remember all holy innocents and all those who suffered, or currently suffer, because of the faith. We remember all martyrs and all those who fight evil simply by trying to do right, by caring for others before themselves, by being compassionate, generous, and kind. We remember that even with all the evils and injustices in our world, the Lord is Emmanuel, God with us, and He ultimately conquers all sin and death. Even if we suffer in this world, (as He did), we have the ultimate victory in Heaven because of His life, death, and resurrection.
That the feast of Jesus’ Baptism comes after these should not surprise us either, because this feast tells something about what Jesus came to do. He offered us baptism: freedom from the power of original sin, connection to the Body of Christ, and salvation. But also baptism is our connection with our faith; that is, what our responsibilities are because we have accepted discipleship. Jesus' baptism was the beginning of His ministry which ended with His death and resurrection. In our baptism we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ.
The season of Christmas ends with the Epiphany. The word epiphany means to have a new insight or understanding; it also means the appearance of a deity. In Jesus we have both. The Lord of Heaven comes to earth, but we also have new insights about the meaning of our lives in Him. So we celebrate His birth, in which we are called to new birth also. We celebrate the sufferings of those gone before us, to remind us that we, too, will suffer, but never alone. And we celebrate that this suffering has meaning, because it can be redemptive for others if we offer it as prayer, and it is our road to sanctity. We celebrate the innocents knowing that God has the final victory over injustice: their deaths are not in vain and they are in Heaven praying for us. And finally we celebrate the Epiphany hoping to give Him gifts such as the wise men left, such as our desire to love, serve, and worship. We celebrate the mission of Christ which is also our mission: we reflect upon what we are being called to do in our own worlds to build the Kingdom He initiated. It makes sense then that our liturgical calendar has us celebrating the feasts in the order we do, and not chronologically, lest we miss the lessons contained.
May we be open to the newborn king, bringing our own gifts of love, service and sacrifice! May we be given the strength to bear the sufferings of our lives, to know with our faith that we are never alone, and to listen to the Lord who helps us to stand against injustice and hatred! May we have the courage to live our baptism always trusting in the graces we have been given! And may we have new realizations of the great love given to us by the Lord of the entire Universe coming into our world, weak and vulnerable, in order to lead us all to Heaven with Him forever! Let us continue to meet at the manger, with the magi, and the Holy Family. Peace!
*I omitted reference to the Feast of the Holy Family intentionally. If I had included it, the blog would have gotten too long!
The top image came from an album cover and is by an artist named Daniel Read: http://www.amazon.com/Carols-Old-Worlds-Daniel-Read/dp/B0000007DK/ref=sr_1_10?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1356884775&sr=1-10
The image halfway through the blog is called Retablito de la Sagrada Familia painted by Rev. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=283
Heart Speaks to Heart