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The Twelve Days of Christmas

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

In the Christian tradition of both east and west, the twelve days of Christmas refer to the period from Christmas Day to Theophany. The days leading up to Christmas were for preparation; a practice affirmed in the Orthodox tradition by the Christmas fast that runs from November 15 to Christmas. The celebration of Christmas was reserved for these twelve days.

As our culture became more commercialized however, the period of celebration has shifted from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day. Christmas celebration increasingly conforms to the shopping cycle while the older tradition falls by the wayside. It's an worrisome shift because as the tradition dims, the knowledge that the preparation imparted diminishes with it.

Our Orthodox traditions – from fasting cycles to worship – exist to teach us how to live in Christ. The traditions impart discipline. These disciplines are never an end in themselves but neither can life in Christ be sustained apart from them.

The traditions only make sense only when they have the Gospel as their reference. If we forget that these traditions are given to us to help us lay hold of Christ, then the traditions appear to be superfluous and the disciplines they impart seem to serve no real purpose. We start to evaluate them by the values of the dominant culture – by a cost-benefit calculus, rather than seeing them as ways by which we morally reorient ourselves towards Christ.

This is happening with Christmas. Rather than preparing for the birth of Christ through inward reorientation and discipline, we follow the direction of the dominant culture and skip any preparation altogether.

We party instead of fast. We get caught up in the commercial energy of the season rather than waiting on the Spirit of God. It's a dangerous path. Our culture is becoming increasingly secularized; the sacred dimension of creation is slipping from view.

This loss of this sense of the sacred has grave ramifications for society that are expressed in different ways such as the desecration of religious art to reducing an unborn child to a commodity, to name two. If this view prevails our culture will inevitably view man as nothing more than an animal or machine.

But man is more than an animal or machine. The scriptures reveal man as created in the image and likeness of God, a phrase that means that man is not complete unless he partakes of God – God must be part of his life. This longing – this innate knowledge that man is created for God – never leaves man although a person can fight against it if he chooses.

A secularized mind is blind to the inherent holiness of life. Maintaining our traditions is one way to avoid this debilitating blindness. Christmas is not just "Jesus' birthday" (an impoverished notion heard more and more even among Orthodox faithful), but much more.

The birth of Christ and His baptism ought never to be divorced. Both events define the Christmas season. It imparts to the Christian the knowledge that Christ's coming into the world and Christ's sanctification of the waters makes our new life possible -- a sonship by adoption accomplished through baptism.

When the link between Christmas and Theophany is broken (and by neglecting the proper preparation we break it), the cultural memory of the promise of new birth expresses itself in weakened and ultimately insufficient cultural forms. These forms function as a new tradition.

Take the way our society celebrates New Year's Day for example. More partying fills the space that is created when celebration culminates on Christmas Day. At the same time, the start of a new year is also the time for resolutions, which recalls the promise of a new start that was the mainstay of the original tradition for many years.

There is of course nothing wrong with making resolutions, but their tie to New Year celebrations is blind to the original promise that all new beginnings depend on the power of God. Moral self-reflection is good and necessary. The secularized tradition however, does not reveal from where the power comes that makes real and necessary change possible.

Religion is not the product of culture; religion is the source, writes philosopher Russell Kirk. "It's from an association in a cult, a body of worshipers, that human community grows…when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order rests on the spiritual order."*

Orthodox Christianity can contribute to the recovery of the moral foundation of American culture by imparting knowledge that can strengthen and deepen that foundation. It won't happen however, if the Orthodox faithful adopt the practices of the dominant culture in place of their own tradition.

*Russell Kirk "Civilization with Religion" The Heritage Foundation
Report (July 24, 1992).

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
of America.

Orthodox Christians need to remain faithful to their traditions.

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