This bloody season

January 17, 2012

Congratulations to all who have survived Christmas despite the hazards of excessive eating and drinking, or prolonged exposure to family members. Today, December 26, is the second of the twelve days of Christmas.

It is also, in British tradition, Boxing Day. The origins of the term are in dispute. It was probably not a day to return purchased presents. It may have been the day on which the wealthy gave their servants a Christ box of gifts and the day off. One explanation is that gifts from the charity box in church were distributed. It is, in any event, now a legal holiday on the first weekday after Christmas Day.

It is also the feast day of St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, who was stoned to death for persistently proclaiming the story of Jesus and the Resurrection to people who preferred not to hear it. And thus we are off on a post-Christmas week of days to commemorate bloody and unpleasant events characteristic in the history of Christianity, rather than relentless sentimentality about the baby in the manger.

December 27 is the feast day of St. John, apostle and evangelist. It seems extremely unlikely that the John to whom is attributed the writing of Revelation, circa A.D. 100, is the same John who was a companion of Jesus, circa A.D. 33. The former John, in exile on Patmos, composed a visionary book that includes moments of great tenderness and beauty, combined with visions of extreme violence and hostility. Revelation barely made it into the canon, and the nutty calculations subsequently derived form it suggest that omitting it might have been the wiser course.

On December 28 we mark the feast of the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem slaughtered by order of King Herod. If you do not know the monologue W.H. Audenassigns to Herod, the reluctant liberal, in his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, it’s hilarious enough to merit your attention.

And December 29 commemorates St. Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral in A.D. 1170 by Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, acting on what they perceived to be the direction of King Henry II.

By January 1, you can wash the blood from your hands and mark the Feast of the Holy Name.

Merry Christmas.

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