It's the day after Christmas.
And it's the year when we read one of the worst Bible stories ever, the one in which Mary and Joseph escape with Baby Jesus thanks to an intervening angel, while all the other little babies in Bethlehem and its environs are mercilessly killed. It's an appalling story, and I hope it will cheer you to know that there are no historical records suggesting it actually happened. I believe it's one of those literary creations designed to set up the rest of the story, to foretell that the authorities will be after Jesus for the rest of his life, and that those authorities don't seem to care about the little ones.
It's the day after, and Mary and Joseph and Jesus are safely in Egypt, to fulfill one more piece of prophecy. But it's not a scene we act out with our nativity figures, is it?
At our house, where there are no more little ones, oceans of wrapping paper are a mere memory. We clean up after ourselves because we all know it feels better that way. Oh, there are little piles of stocking presents or Christmas books left in the living room. Mine are on the end table; the coffee table holds a few. Someone always has a stack near the hearth. The stockings are re-hung by the chimney with care, a remembrance of days past, when mine was labeled "Mommy."
On the dining room table this morning I found the pretty crystal goblets we used at Christmas dinner. I like to save them to handwash the day after. They sparkle with memories of the night before.
It's the day after Christmas, the First Sunday After Christmas Day. For people who celebrate saints and their feast days, this is St. Stephen's Day. For people in countries under the influence of English traditions, today is Boxing Day. Some people thing Boxing Day means the day you return the presents you don't really want! But really it means the day the church "poor boxes" were opened, and all the contributions that had come in through the year, and especially through the Christmas season, were counted up and then distributed to those in need.
This year, instead of having a Poinsettia Tree, our Flower Committee invited us to donate to the Cumberland Food Pantry. The stars hanging in front of the choir loft represent our gifts, and you have a list of those who donated to the cause. In case you didn't hear the news on Christmas Eve, we raised $955 for the Food Pantry. This is just one equivalent of the poor box, a way of carrying Christmas beyond the hustle and bustle of yesterday, over to the day after and the week after and into the New Year.
We heard a snippet from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, part of the journey Ebenezer Scrooge took with the Ghost of Christmas present. Scrooge saw many examples of the ways people treated each other with kindness because their hearts felt the warmth of Christmas. Frightened by the future that laid ahead if he remained cold and selfish, the old man would – I hope this isn’t a spoiler! – come to behave generously himself. More than that, he would come to *feel* generous. The Charity Gentleman who came to him seeking donations the day before, a gentleman Scrooge rejected ferociously, gets a shock at the end when Scrooge whispers to him a large amount he wants to give to help the poor. “A great many back-payments are included in it,” says Scrooge.
Our Christmas Eve offerings included money given to our Deacons' Fund, through which we help people in the local community and in our own church with food and fuel assistance. In the early church, Stephen, whose Saint's Day this is, was one of the first deacons. Deacons were the people who were called on by the early church to make sure the poor and marginalized in the community were cared for, given food and clothes. They were the first people to do the work Jesus calls us all to do.
Stephen went on to be a preacher who brought the message of Jesus to many, many people. He was one of the first martyrs to our faith, stoned to death by people who found the message of Jesus threatening to their way of living.
It's the day after Christmas, a good time to reflect on what we're asked to do and be.
I first learned about Good King Wenceslas when I was a little girl growing up in Virginia. The girls' school I attended had a *huge* carol service every December. Girls from grades 4 through 12 sang carols from around the world, tunes still lively in my heart and mind, mostly sung in their original languages. "De Beau Matin, je rencontre le train, les trois Grand Rois qui partaient en voyage, " we sang in French, and "Un flambeau, Jeanette Isabelle." The older girls sang in Spanish and in German and in Latin.
In the fifth grade, I had the chance to sing a little solo line in the carol #1 Son and LP shared with you a few minutes ago, and thus I learned to love King Wenceslas. The real Wenceslas was probably called Vaclav. He was the Duke of Bohemia more than a thousand years ago. He was known to be a kind and generous man, raised up in the Christian faith by his grandmother, St. Ludmila. He believed that faith was more than how you feel about God; he believed that faith meant acting on God's behalf for the good of the world. He, too, would be killed simply because he was such a good and faithful person, murdered by his own brother.
The hymn writer, John Mason Neale, chose Wenceslas as the subject when he wanted to write a carol for children in the 1800's. He hoped to tell a story explaining to children that generosity is more than doing what comes easily. If you have ever been out in the cold, especially when your destination is unclear and the visibility is poor, you can identify with the page who sings, "Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger. Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer."
On the day after Christmas, the servant called out to his master, just as we call out to God when we don't know how to keep going. Wenceslas encourages him, telling him to step into the footprints his master has already made. But he has done more than break a path. It's the miracle that makes him a saint. "Heat was in the very sod which the Saint had printed." His feet warmed the earth, and warmed the young page, giving him the strength he needed to continue.
The prophet Isaiah wrote:
It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9, NRSV)
How do we find our way in the storms of life? Follow in the footprints of the Master, Jesus, the One who came to warm the Earth with God's love. How do we live his love? Break open like the poor boxes, and be spilled out to do God's work in the world. How do we keep the Spirit of the season? Resist the urge to pack Jesus away with the nativity figures and the Christmas ornaments. It’s the day after, and Christmas is just beginning. Amen.
P.S. No claims being made about my French carol memories…especially the spelling.