By John Rieping | Published 28 Dec. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
"I will kiss you!" / cried a little bird to the Sun up above / Her little heart light with love
"Come," laughed the Sun, / "and we shall be wed!"
But, though she flapped, / Sky would not bear her / Her wings grew so heavy! / Soon down to the mud sank she
"I am too weak to fly up so high," / the muddy bird cried, / and how deeply she did sigh
Sun beamed and laughed, / "Then I will come down!"
And He did.
And no, my greeting is not late -- at least for me. For centuries, many Christians have celebrated Christmas not as a single day nor as a season that ends Dec. 25. The traditional carol "The 12 Days of Christmas" and even the title of William Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" continue to remind us of this.
While the calendar of the Catholic Church will observe the Christmas season through Jan. 12 this year, the traditional "12 days" extends from the evening before Christmas to the holiday of Epiphany, which customarily falls on Jan. 6. Epiphany looks to the visit of the magi to the newborn Jesus, described in Christian scripture and seen by believers as the first revelation of the Jewish messiah to non-Jews.
In many nations, such as Mexico, gifts used to be exchanged for centuries on Epiphany, not Christmas. But the U.S. tradition, which in the 20th century was exported globally together with the myth of Santa Claus, changed that for many.
Catholics extend the Christmas season until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which commemorates that ceremonial washing of Jesus in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, this latter event is instead remembered on Epiphany, which is for them the primary holiday of this time of year -- not Christmas.
Regardless these times are not jolly for all, whether Christian or not.
One Madera (California) couple I know inwardly grieves the absence of their babe, who died months ago -- far too soon for Christmas. Another couple elsewhere in the U.S., cousins of a friend, has a two-month old boy, Atticus, in intensive care (to help with the medical costs, see http://goo.gl/MmogHC). Due to his precarious health, he received his baptism and confirmation Friday.
A third couple has been bereft of two grandsons, one to a drug overdose and the other to jail. Grief colors their holiday. Meanwhile a fellow columnist at this newspaper had a serious and unexpected brush with death.
Then there is the local family planning the funeral of a 15-year-old boy who died shielding his 13-year-old brother from bullets in a purposeless shooting (how that noble act calls to mind John 15:3).
Isn't the birth of Jesus supposed to bring peace and good will to humanity? That oft-repeated phrase is a variation of the words sung by many angels to shepherds outside of Bethlehem: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will." (Luke 2:14)
Yet, despite Christmas, pain of all kinds remains and there are no easy answers. This mystery of suffering can only make sense at the foot of the cross, upon which the grown babe Jesus died -- the self-sacrifice for which Christians believe he came. If we Christians believe even our God was not spared a terrible cross, how can we think we will? Yet that is not cause for despair or stoicism.
Jesus himself would tell his closest followers, the apostles, "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you -- not as the world gives, I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid... These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have affliction, but take courage. I have conquered the world." (John 14:27, 33)
Peace and courage can be found in God, even amidst hurt.
May the love of God be born anew in our own hearts that we may bring what consolation we can offer, by prayer and deed, to those in need. Let us be men and women of good will to those around us and to our own selves.
"Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
Baby Atticus died later on Friday. A message from his mother to those who prayed for him was shared on Facebook:
"I don't know where to begin...I feel, hear and see God in all of you and have so much love and gratitude to every single one of you that I can't even begin to articulate. There's so much I want to say. I love ALL of you, whether I know you personally or not. I want all of you to know that our sons passing last night was one of the most painful, heartbreaking experiences of our lives and yet also one of the most spiritual and peaceful. I am so grateful to God that he passed while lying in my arms while singing to him; not connected to any IV's or breathing tubes and was his perfect little angelic self. We were able to hold him for as long as we wanted and I truly felt our souls connecting as God was with me and my family last night. Thank you to EVERYONE for everything. I cannot express enough in words how much all of you mean to us. Love to you all"