On this “in-between” week, I thought we would do something fun for our message. We’ve all heard of Hallmark’s “25 days of Christmas” or their “Countdown to Christmas.” Today, we are going to chat about the 12 days of Christmas.
We all have heard and sung the catchy and crazy accumulative Christmas song about the 12 days of Christmas and the many gifts our “true love” gives to us. We have even heard Jeff Foxworthy’s spoof on this song. It’s fun to sing, if a bit confusing. There are several versions of “the gifts” out there – especially as you get higher up in the days.
So, let’s take a look at the song, and explore each of the days’ gifts.
When are the 12 days of Christmas?
The earliest known written version of the “12 Days of Christmas,” which was printed without accompanying music, goes back to 1780 and the English children’s book, Mirth With-out Mischief. However, many scholars believe the poem is French in origin and started out as a game to test memory that revelers played at Twelfth Night parties. The song can be a bit challenging, especially if you have been enjoying the Christmas spirits a bit. The rules were that if you forgot the words, you’d have to give your opponent a kiss or grant them a favor (Gleeson).
Over the years, the cumulative verse poem, “where each patterned verse contributes to a longer narrative” – shifted and changed over the centuries. It wasn’t until 1909, when English composer Frederic Austin added music to the poem (Gleeson).
Some even believed that this poem/song was written and used as an “underground catechism” to help share the important tenants of the Catholic faith in England during the period of 1558 to 1829 when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England. During this time period, it was prohibited by law for ANY to practice their faith – private OR public. It was a crime to BE a Catholic (Stockert).
There is varying information on this claim. So, whether you believe this is true or not, using the 12 Days of Christmas song to help young people and adults alike remember important parts of our faith is a pretty creative way to do so. Let’s take a look and see:
Each verse of the song begins with: On the # day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…… According to the articles I found on-line,
We are going to take a look at the song verse by verse without repeating the previous days. We will sing the verse, then pause briefly to talk about the Christian “meaning” given to it according to Dennis Bratcher’s article posted in 2005. We will do that through all 12 days, then we will repeat Day 12 and test our memories and go through all of the 11 previous days. So, let’s start the song.
On the 1st day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: A partridge in a pear tree.
On the 2nd day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 2 Turtle Doves.
On the 3rd day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 3 French Hens.
On the 4th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 4 Calling Birds.
On the 5th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 5 Golden Rings.
On the 6th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 6 Geese A-laying.
On the 7th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 7 Swans A-swimming.
On the 8th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 8 Maids A-milking.
On the 9th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 9 Ladies Dancing.
On the 10th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 10 Lords A-leaping.
On the 11th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 11 Piper’s Piping.
On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 12 Drummers Drumming.
Well, it’s a good thing they didn’t include this language in the poem, it would be very hard to sing the verses. But, it is extremely useful in helping us boil the key elements of our faith down into easy to remember chunks.
Let’s sing the song one more time starting with Day 12 and adding each of the previous day’s gifts as the song invites us to.
The next time you hear or sing the song, 12 days of Christmas, remember that there is always more to a song that just what the lyrics share. The meaning behind the words has a story to tell. And for those of us who are Christians, there is definitely more to the story. We are to remember that the core reason we celebrate this holiday – this HOLY DAY – is because God Loved us so much that God was willing to give us the ultimate gift – God’s self, wrapped up in flesh and bone, in the form of a vulnerable baby whom we could all love and grow with as we forged a closer relationship with God through him. I hope this Christmas has provided you with the opportunity to renew that relationship once again.
May it be so….. AMEN
Bratcher, Dennis, Article “The Twelve Days of Christmas” published in 2005. http://www.crivoice.org/cy12days.html
Gleeson, Jill, article “Here’s What to Know About the 12 Days of Christmas Meaning”, printed Nov 20, 2019. https://www.countryliving.com/entertaining/a29832797/12-days-of-christmas-meaning/
Stockert, Hall (Father), article “Origin of The Twelve Days of Christmas” An Underground Catechism https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/origin-of-the-twelve-days-of-christmas-10885?keyword=&mt=b&loc=9006758&n=g&d=c&adp=1t2&cid=8641161795&adgid=90568226081&tid=dsa-19959388920&gclid=Cj0KCQiA0ZHwBRCRARIsAK0Tr-rwcmLzyQNTaaVDc9x-INGTWTle5dIVtB_23kK2WVw821mGC384aKEaAkoeEALw_wcB
On this, our final Sunday in Advent, it’s appropriate that we talk about Joy. And what better way to talk about Joy, than to visit with Mary and hear her beautiful song of joyous praise to God, found only in the Gospel of Luke.
Why do we visit with Mary every year in the 3rd or 4th week of Advent?
“Luke tells us a lot about how Mary responded to the angel Gabriel’s visit and message,” Timothy Keller says in his book “Hidden Christmas.” He believes “it is to hold her up as a model of what responsive Christian faith looks like” (p81).
So, how does Mary respond?
When she is told that she is going to have a baby – God’s baby – does she just say: GREAT! I’m thrilled to be of service….. or does she have a different response?
It’s a little bit of both. Yet, her “I’m thrilled to be of service” comes a little bit down the road. (Keller, p81).
Luke tells us that Mary was first “perplexed and pondered” the angel’s greeting to her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (v29) (Keller, p81).
When we think about how Mary’s questioned and asked the angel for clarification, we can see that “responding in faith is a whole-person experience that includes the intellect,” not just the heart. No one can ever accuse Mary of responding in any way like “blind faith” (Keller, p81).
Last week I mentioned that Jews do not believe that God could (or would) ever become a human being (Keller, p82). So, it’s easy to see why Mary would be perplexed and question what she is hearing from the angel.
Doubting and questioning, are important parts of being faithful and can be seen and heard in many forms in the Bible.
What kind of doubter are you?
Keller tells us that “Mary’s faith happens in stages.” He says, “Christian faith requires the commitment of our whole lives. While it is possible, few go from being uncommitted to being fully committed in a single stroke” (p83).
Mary’s 1st response was that of “measured incredulity.” She questioned what she was hearing. And the question she asked, was one that invited further information; it sought to engage in a conversation to learn more – “How can this be?” (Keller, p84-85).
Mary’s 2nd response is “simple acceptance.” She says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (v38). I would bet that Mary isn’t truly convinced that God is going to make her pregnant through the Holy Spirit, and that the child she will give birth to will be God in human form. Still, she is willing to take the chance, to say “Yes” to God, and to allow herself to be used for God’s purpose (Keller, p85).
I think this is where we, humans, fail. We want to only make a decision “for God” if, and only if, we can clearly see, hear, feel, and/or experience the truth and reality of God – rationally, emotionally, and personally. But that isn’t “faith” is it? Faith is believing and acting even without tangible proof that something is real. “Sometimes, we can only do what Mary does – just submit and trust, despite our fears and reservations” (Keller, p85). Sometimes we have to take the “leap of faith,” trusting that God will not let us fall.
Mary’s final response to her visit with the angel comes only after she arrives at her cousin Elizabeth’s house. When Elizabeth greets Mary and proclaims, without pre-knowledge, that Mary indeed carries the messianic child in her womb, Mary is finally convinced that she has truly experienced an encounter with God, and that she is indeed favored. Mary is finally able to “exercise faith from the heart” as her joy bubbles forth in her beautiful song, the Magnificat, where she gives voice to her joyous praise for God, making connections to what God has done, and is doing, through her – a simple, poor, peasant girl from Galilee – and the promises God made centuries ago to Abraham, that God would save all people through him and his descendants. Mary’s response has gone from simple submission, to giving her heart completely and joyfully (Keller, p86) to God.
Mary’s final response is one of deep wonder. She is not thinking about the costs to herself. Instead, she has been caught up wholly – her thinking is convinced, her feelings captivated, and her will gladly surrendered. In her song, we can hear a sense of amazement in her words: that God has chosen her – “he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me” (v48-49) (Keller, p88).
Keller points out that “true faith is not something that you simply decide in yourself to exercise. We are incapable, on our own, of simply believing in Jesus. God has to open our hearts and help us break through our prejudices, doubts, and denials (p87) before we can truly believe.
Keller also reminds us of the gift that we too receive from God: “Every Christian is like Mary” he says. “Everyone who puts their faith in Christ receives the Holy Spirit” (p89).
If we are to be like Mary, we must have faith that:
NOTE TO SELF: You must remember – even though we willingly put our faith and trust in God, this does not mean everything will go easy for us. Look at Mary…..her life wasn’t easy; it wasn’t all sunshine and happiness. Her “Yes” to God brought her plenty of ridicule, public humiliation, fear, and suffering (Keller, p98-99).
Yet, in spite of all that happens, Mary remains faithful to her God. Would we/Do we remain faithful in the face of similar situations?
However, faith should be somewhat easier for us, than it was for Mary. One reason we can give ourselves to Jesus more freely, is because: We know the ending of Jesus’ life-story. We know that all he did, all he suffered and endured was for our benefit, and was out of LOVE for us. We know that Christ walks with us through the darkest times and eventually brings good out of all it (Keller, p95-98). And because of this, we can more easily trust that God is with us always.
Today, we raise our voices in Joyous Praise for all that Christ has done for us, is doing in us, and will continue to do through us. With the courage of Mary, may we willingly offer ourselves as faithful servants of our Lord, so that God’s will may be accomplished for all people.
May it be so….. AMEN
Keller, Timothy, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ, Chapter 5: Mary’s Faith. Viking-Penguin Random House LLC/New York, NY, 2016, p79-99
Some have argued that the supreme miracle of Christianity is not the resurrection of Christ from the dead, but (is actually) the incarnation (Keller, p44).
Now, there’s a “churchy” word that we often throw around at this time of year without defining. We assume that we all “known” the word, but do we?
What is the Incarnation?
Timothy Keller has a few different ways of defining the Incarnation in his book.
Because of the Incarnation, we are given the opportunity to have a real, intimate, and lasting relationship with God in Jesus.
This is very different from what the Jews believe. They believe in a God who was both personal and infinite, who was not a being within the universe, but was instead the catalyst of its existence and transcendent above it (Keller, p42).
In the Old Testament, God appeared as a smoking furnace, a pillar of fire, and as a whirlwind or tornado (Keller, p53). The closest we would get to visibly seeing God was to encounter one of God’s many messengers like both Mary and Joseph did.
Back in Exodus 38, while on Mt Sinai meeting with God, Moses asked to see God’s face, and he was told that if he were to look directly at God, it would kill him. He was told, at best, that he could glimpse God’s back after God had passed him by (Exodus 38:18-23) (Keller, p53).
Yet, numerous centuries later, Jesus Christ – by his life, by his claims, and by his resurrection – convinced his closest Jewish followers that he was not just a prophet telling them how to find God, but was God himself, come to find us (Keller, p42).
If Moses were to walk into our sanctuary today and hear us talking about the Incarnation, and listen to our various scripture readings like these through Advent and Christmas:
I imagine Moses would be stunned! Keller says that he believes, “Moses would cry out, Do you realize what this means?! This is the very thing I was denied! This means that through Jesus you can meet God. You can know God personally and without terror. God can come into your life. Where’s your joy? Where’s your amazement? How can your lives NOT be changed?!” (p54).
I think Moses’ shock would be spot on. I really don’t think we are surprised and amazed with the idea, much less the reality, that God came to us in the form of a human infant, so that we might have a real relationship with God’s self in Jesus. That God willingly became vulnerable and ordinary – he became fully human just like you and me (Keller, p47-48); that God emptied himself of his glory, of his divine prerogatives (Keller, p48); and willingly suffered so that we might be able to better connect with God.
This God – the one who lived like us, who has experienced the darkness, rejection, pain, and suffering we go through, and then some – is a God who truly understands us and we can trust in God’s love and care for us (Keller, p52-53).
What do you think…..
If you answered YES to any of the above questions, then why don’t we live and act more like Jesus taught us?
Maybe, it’s because we can only read about and hear stories about Jesus. We have never experienced Jesus as a living, breathing person. So, it’s hard to really wrap our head around the idea that he is real. We want to believe he is, but…… part of us holds back a bit.
It takes a lot of courage to truly believe in Jesus as a living breathing human being, who is also God come to be with us and save us from ourselves and the troubles of our world.
It takes a lot of courage to not just truly believe, but to live like we believe – as faithful disciples of Christ. I know your thinking – what do you mean it takes courage to let our lives reflect Jesus’ teachings and ministry?
If we have the courage to live as faithful disciples, following Christ’s teachings. Then, we must set aside our “right to self-determination”. We must have the courage to do the things that our culture tells us we shouldn’t – deny ourselves of our own will, and trust in what God is calling us to do. As a disciple of Christ, we must trust that God will guide us in what we should be doing, how we should be acting, and what we should be saying. We must trust that in the end – all will be well, that God will take the good and bad choices we make, the kind, hope-filled, chaotic, and hot mess areas of our world and work them for good. (Keller, p58-59)
Most of all, we must have the courage to admit that we need God – that we cannot in order to be our best selves - to live our lives successfully, happily, and abundantly – we need God’s loving and guiding presence in our lives (Keller, p61).
Where do we get the courage to truly believe and follow Jesus; to know that we can give our entire life over to God and we will be better for it?
We look to Jesus himself. We must pause to consider what it must have taken for him to willingly come to be with us: to become mortal and vulnerable so that he could suffer, be betrayed and killed for us. To remember that on the cross, he felt every human emotion of betrayal, fear, and pain – just as we would. Yet, Jesus/God felt it was all worth it. Jesus chose to go through all of this out of LOVE for you, for me, for every human being past, present and future around the world (Keller, p61).
The true and ultimate gift we receive from God is LOVE – unconditional, unselfish, unstoppable, unimaginable LOVE.
May this year be the one that you truly come to know deep in your heart and soul God’s LOVE for you, and may it bring you hope and peace. May you offer that same love back to God and pass it on to others.
Keller, Timothy, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ, Chapter 3: The Fathers of Jesus. Viking-Penguin Random House LLC/New York, NY, 2016, p40-62.
In today’s US culture and society, how do we identify who and what is valuable, important, most sought after, and what makes one “successful”?
Back in the early days of the US, people often would ask, “Who are your people?” Your family heritage – who your ancestors are, where you come from – was really important. I suppose in some circles that still is the case today, but not so much for the average US resident.
Matthew’s gospel account of the birth of Jesus starts by providing a long, seemingly tedious genealogy (Keller, p20). It’s Jesus’ “resume” of a sort. Matthew feels it’s very important that we know “who Jesus is” and where he comes from (Keller, p29), that his family line goes all the way back to Abraham.
In this way, Matthew reminds us that “Christmas is not simply about a birth, but about a coming, and that God had planned for the arrival of his Son before God even created the Earth. This genealogy shows the extent God was willing to go in order to foreshadow the great person Jesus would be throughout the course of history. And he does so by rooting him firmly in history” (Keller, p20-21).
In Jesus’ time and in the early days of the US, genealogical listings, or resumes, were meant to impress onlookers with the high quality and respectability of one’s roots (Keller, p29) – one’s ancestors.
Matthew’s listing does the very opposite with Jesus. Rather than listing only the “important” people, his genealogy includes some “questionable” ones. So, his genealogy is shockingly unlike other ancient ones.
In ancient patriarchal societies, a woman was virtually never named in such lists. So, Matthew’s inclusion of 5 women in Jesus’ family tree is quite shocking. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah, and, of course, his mother Mary. They can be considered “gender outsiders” (Keller, p29).
Another point of oddity and difference, is that most of the women in Jesus’ family tree were Gentiles: Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites and Ruth was a Moabite. It’s interesting that Matthew – a presumed devout Jew would include them, since to the ancient Jews, these nations were considered “unclean,” and to be avoided. So we can consider these women “racial outsiders” (Keller, p30).
Why would Matthew make such a point of including these women in Jesus’ family tree? Why didn’t he include the other women – like Sarah, Rachel, and Leah? Why only this 5?
Matthew wants us to take a closer look at the stories of their lives, to see what they have to tell us, and listen to how they can speak to who Jesus is.
When we do look at their stories, we see that they represent “some of the most sordid, nasty, and immoral incidents in the Bible.” So, how can these stories help us better understand Jesus?
Based on their stories, these individuals could be called “moral outsiders” - they were adulterers, adulteresses, prostitutes, and involved in questionable family relations, etc. Even Jesus’s “prominent male ancestors – David and Judah – were moral failures” Out of this dysfunctional family comes the Messiah (Keller, p31).
Interestingly, these individuals – the cultural, racial, and gender outsiders – would have been identified among those “excluded from the presence of God by the Law of Moses.” Yet….they are ALL publicly acknowledged as the ancestors of Jesus (Keller, p32).
Matthew does this specifically “show (us) that people who are excluded by culture, by respectable society, and even by the “law of God” can be brought into Jesus’ family.
Here is these stories from Jesus’ family tree, we see that good can come out of dysfunction and tragedy. We are reminded that your family history does not need to dictate who you are or what your potential is. Who and what you become is your choice.
I believe that Matthew also included these stories to assure us that we can be – and are – part or Jesus’ family tree. If we “repent and believe in him, the grace of Jesus Christ can cover our sins and unite us with him” (Keller, p32).
The amazing fact is that while culture and society may have deemed these individuals’ outsiders, “ceremonial unclean” and should be avoided lest they contaminate others, in Jesus that thinking is turned around. His holiness cannot be contaminated. In fact, Jesus’ holiness infects us by our contact with him. Matthew claims that “all who come to him – regardless of who you are and what you have done, no matter how morally stained you are – he can make you as pure as snow” (Isaiah 1:18) (Keller, p32).
Here lies the good news for us today….. We are ALL included in Jesus’ family. Even before Jesus was born, God had already included everyone in Jesus’ family tree – cultural/ethnic/racial, gender, and even moral outsiders, all became insiders, all became family in him.
This is the good news that the birth of Christ brings to us this Christmas season - the gift we receive is God’s unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, and love for us. There is nothing that we have done, or could do, that can or will separate us from God’s love in Christ.
The Christmas message is of the coming of Christ, being born into human flesh to live among us once again, so that we may come to know, understand, and believe in the gift of God’s love for us. To know that WE are ALL part of Jesus’ family tree, and that our place in it was decided before we were even born.
This gift alone can bring peace into our lives. The peace that allows us to set aside all our worries and our doubts about the future. We know that in Christ we have nothing to fear in our future - death has been overcome, our struggles will be used for good, our tears will turn to laughter, and we will have eternal life with the One who created us and continually seeks to transform us, the one who endlessly redeems us and who forever walks beside us, guiding us from darkness into light.
This Advent and Christmas season: may you accept God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, and deeply know God’s peace in your life.
Keller, Timothy. Hidden Christmas – The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ. Penguin Random House/New York, NY, 2016, Chapter 2: “The Mothers of Jesus,” p20-39.
Here we are at the start of a new church year. The church is decked out in its holiday finery and we are ready to start our journey to Bethlehem once again. This year, we will be using Timothy Keller’s book, “Hidden Christmas – the Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ” as our main resource for our Advent and Christmas season.
What are some of the first indicators that Christmas is coming – soon?
Lights are definitely one of the first indicators that Christmas is coming. They start to appear everywhere - lights on trees, candles in windows, and hanging on houses. Some twinkling and some steady – multi-colored (or hued), as well as in cool and bright whites. Everything seems as if it is wrapped in millions and millions of stars (p5), giving the world a more “magical” look.
Keller reminds us that Christmas is the only Christian holy day that is also a major secular holiday – arguably our culture’s biggest. This results in two different celebrations – each observed by millions of people at the very same time (p1).
For Christians, of course, lights are not just decorative; they are symbolic.
When you think of light, what does it mean or represent for you?
For centuries, light has represented these things. Many would place a candle in their windows to guide family members home or lost travelers to safety. Lighthouses have been used to help keep ships on course and to guide sailors into safe harbors. Firelight has always brought warmth and sustenance to those who use it.
Light in the Bible is also symbolic more than literal. In our Isaiah text when we hear of God’s light dawning on a dark world, the prophet is referring to the sun. And, of course, sunlight brings illumination to things we couldn’t previously see in the dark of night. Sunlight also symbolically represents life, truth, and beauty. The sun gives life (Keller, p10) to all things that grow and breathe. Night time is like a little death – everything goes into a time of dormancy, of rest – but sunrise is when everything awakens and is vibrantly alive once again.
We have defined “light,” but what about darkness? How do we define “darkness” in the Bible? The word “darkness” refers to both evil and ignorance (p6).
How/where do we see darkness in our world?
Keller says another understanding of “darkness” is the “way our world is in the dark and no one knows enough to cure the evil we are suffering here (p6).
So, where is our hope? Are we just stuck with the world the way it is? Is there anything we can do?
Here lies part of the problem. Vaclav Havel, 1st President of the Czech Republic, says – too often we/humanity think that WE can solve the problems of our world. “Pursuit of the good life will not help humanity save itself, nor is democracy alone enough,” he says. “A turning to and seeking God is needed. The human race constantly forgets that they are NOT God, and that we cannot save ourselves,” Havel says (Keller quoting, p8).
Keller tells us that the message of Christianity is that: “Things really are this dark, nevertheless, there is hope!” (p10).
So where does our hope come from?
The Christian message is all about hope. The prophet Isaiah says: “on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned (shined).” (9:2). When we look at the words closely, we can see that the light has dawned upon the world – it didn’t come from within the world. We are not the source of the light. The light is outside of this world; it comes from God. Remember, God alone has the life, truth, and ability to bring the hope that we lack and cannot generate ourselves. Isaiah tells us that the light of life has come, “for to us a child is born, a son is given” (9:6-7). The child brings the light; he is the light (Keller, p10).
We hear these words from Jesus, himself in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Isaiah tells us that this child is the light for all people because he is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (9:6b).
As we begin our journey with Mary and Joseph once again – a path that will take us to a dusty stable in Bethlehem where we will kneel with shepherds beside a manger in awe that God chose that couple, that place and time and us to witness his entrance into our human existence as a beautiful, vulnerable infant.
Each year at Christmas, and every day in between, we receive this amazing, awe-inspiring, unconditional gift: “for to us a child is born, a son is given” (9:6-7). The gift is ours for the taking, all we have to do is be willing to:
In doing so, we are given the gift of new life through the inbreaking of God’s light in our lives. We are able to have HOPE, no matter how “dark” things seem, we can trust that God is always with us because: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5). Nothing that life tries to dish out can steal our HOPE or our LIGHT as long as we allow God to guide our days and watch over our nights.
My friends, As you enter into the Advent Season, may your feel and know the warming presence of God’s light and love in your life.
May it be so – every moment of every day and night….
Keller, Timothy. Hidden Christmas – The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ. Penguin Random House/New York, NY, 2016, Chapter 1: “A Light Has Dawned,” p5-19.