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THE NUMEROLOGY OF CHRISTMAS
FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
January 05, 2019 – 10:30 AM
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 60:1-6 | Psalm 72:1-2;7-8;10-13
Ephesians 3:2-3A;5-6 | Matthew 2:1-12
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Tomorrow will be officially the Feast of the Epiphany that we celebrate today. Over the past eleven days, the holiday season which started on Thanksgiving Day has been winding down though I hope, as Deacon Sharon preached on Christmas Day, that you will carry the spirit of Christmas in your hearts throughout the year.
Christians enjoy twelve days celebrating the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity. To quote the Gospel of Luke for Christmas Eve, we heard the angels proclaim to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The messages on television and on the Internet which tell us generally to “rejoice” and “be merry” are, in the secular world, equated with material gifts, but as Christians, we must remember the reason for the rejoicing and the merriment comes from Jesus. To use an oft-quoted phrase, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
Today we celebrate the Magi appearing at the crib of Jesus to give him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Maybe that particular act of gift-giving generated our custom of giving gifts to one another at Christmas. But the gift of gifts is God’s gift of Jesus to all humanity.
Over the twelve days of Christmas, we celebrate what we read in the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
You are no doubt familiar with the song, “Twelve Days of Christmas.” While it may sound like a secular song, it is the numerology of Christmas with profound religious meanings embedded in it.
“On the First Day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.” Our “true love” is God. No one can put any other person ahead of God, who has been with us at the beginning of our life and will be with us for all eternity. The First Epistle of John tells us unambiguously “God is love.” Every verse of the song begins with that phrase, reminding us that all gifts ultimately come from God; when we receive Christmas gifts, we receive those gifts from God, who acts through the giver.
Each of those twelve gifts have a unique meaning for Christians.
The “partridge in a pear tree” is Jesus Himself. He is God’s one and only Son. There are no other gifts like Jesus, who comes to love and save and free us from the bondage of sin and death.
The “Two Turtle Doves” represent The Old and New Testaments. For Catholics, of course, that includes the Deuterocanonical Books that the Protestants leave out. I am referring to the books of Judith, Tobit, First and Second Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, the Greek version of Esther, and the longer version of Daniel.
The Three French Hens symbolize Faith, Hope, and Love, the principle theological virtues.
Saint Paul tells us, “Three things will last forever: faith, hope, and love.” As the anonymous author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says to us, “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”
Hope has been defined as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” It can also be defined as “a feeling of trust.” While faith is trusting in God that there is something better to seek than what we have now, hope is the expectation, or the certainty, that it is actually there. Hope is the fuel that keeps faith alive in our quest to find love. Saint Paul tells us that of those three virtues, the greatest is love. More on that later.
The Calling Birds are the Four Canonical Gospels, that is, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. According to nearly all scholars across multiple denominations, that is the proper chronological order in which these gospels were compiled by their four anonymous authors. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are called the “synoptic gospels”, because they synopsize the biography of Jesus, while the Gospel of John is more a theological treatise than a biography. Each of the Gospels have their own way of storytelling. Sometimes they agree with each other, sometimes not, and each has unique material. But all four Gospels are indeed, “calling birds.” They call us to new life in Jesus.
The Five Golden Rings are the first five books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch,” known by our Jewish sisters and brothers as “The Torah” a word that means “teaching.” The books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are truly golden rings that we wear on our hearts as our connection to the first of the chosen people. They contain the law of God as it was revealed to Moses. The Torah is read at Jewish Synagogue services. The Jewish people keep the Torah in a sacred adorned scroll and keep in a place in the synagogue known as “the ark.”
Genesis contains two accounts of the creation story. The two stories do not contradict but complement each other.
The main theme of Exodus is about the journey of the Jewish people out of Egypt and their wandering in the desert for forty years. It presents the defining features of Israel’s identity—memories of a past marked by hardship and escape, a binding covenant with God, who chooses Israel, and the establishment of the life of the community and the guidelines for sustaining it.
Leviticus contains detailed laws. Numbers continues the history of the Israelites and their relationship with God. Deuteronomy means “second law” and is a restatement of the law as given to Moses, whose speeches are featured throughout that book.
Six Geese A-Laying is for the six days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. That first story originates from the so-called “Priestly Source”, while the second one comes from what is known as the “Jahwist Source”. The priestly source story is not literally true. The earth and all therein was not made in six days, as our fundamentalist sisters and brothers try to tell us. The story was meant to convey God’s unfolding of life through divine commandment and fulfillment. Some scholars believe that the creation story in the Bible came from polytheistic Mesopotamian mythology which the Jews adapted to monotheism.
Seven Swans A Swimming is for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, reverence, and fear of the Lord.
The gift of wisdom enables us to see God at work in the world and enables us to make practical judgments to handle the situations that confront us in everyday life.
In the gift of understanding, we comprehend how we need to live as a follower of Jesus to sort out the conflicting messages we receive from the world around us.
The gift of counsel, or right judgment helps us to discern right and wrong.
The gift of courage enables us to undertake the risks that come with following Jesus.
The gift of knowledge is not just and accumulation of facts, but insight into the meaning of God.
The gift of reverence gives us deep respect for God and the Church.
The gift known as “fear of the Lord” doesn’t mean being afraid of God, but placing oneself in the wonder and awe of God.
Eight Maids-A-Milking are the eight Beatitudes we find in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel According to Matthew. You will probably recall the verse from the Gospel for Christmas Day, “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus.” The Beatitudes represent that grace and that truth. The Beatitudes are so important for Christians that I feel compelled to repeat them today.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
All of the Beatitudes have an eschatological meaning, that is, they promise us what is in the world to come, but they also bring peace to humanity in the midst of the trials and tribulations of our lives in today’s world.
The Nine Ladies Dancing represents the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit found in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. They are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The word love is duplicated from the three theological virtues. Given its importance for Christians, it is worth repeating. The word “love” presents difficulties for English-speaking Christians because it is an overbroad term with many meanings depending on the context. To simplify matters, I go with the meanings described in “The Four Loves” by CS Lewis. First is Eros, like that between romantic partners. Second is Storge, like the affection between parent and child. The third is Philia, or love between friends. Fourth is Agape our love for humankind generally, in the same manner that God loves all of us.
Joy is deeper than mere happiness; it is rooted in God and comes from Him. Since it comes from God, it is more serene and stable than worldly happiness, which is merely emotional and lasts only for a time.
The word “peace” comes from the Greek word eirene, the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew word shalom, which expresses the idea of wholeness, completeness, or tranquility in the soul that is unaffected by the outward pressures. The word Eirene suggests the rule of order in place of chaos. Peace can mean a nation at peace, a cessation of hostilities between persons or groups, a state of security and safety, or the tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Jesus. But remember always Jesus is the Prince of Peace, who brings peace to the hearts of those who desire it.
Patience denotes leniency and forbearance, and/or the ability to endure persecution and ill-treatment. It describes a person who has the power to exercise revenge but instead exercises restraint. To quote the Epistle to the Ephesians, we are to “live in lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love.”
Kindness is goodness in action, sweetness of disposition, gentleness in dealing with others, benevolence, and affability, in particular, the ability to act for the welfare of those taxing your patience. Kindness is doing something and not expecting anything in return. Kindness describes those in positions of power who are benevolent to their subordinates.
Goodness means moral excellence of one’s heart and one’s life. It is best summed up in the phrase, “Do the right thing,” like helping another person who is in trouble, solving problems with other people using compassion rather than judgment, being your true self rather than hiding behind a false front to meet the expectations of others; finding a way to be part of the solution to the problem rather than be a problem; and being flexible to respond in the most loving way when conditions change.
To be faithful is to be loyal and trusting of God. Conversely, it means being worthy of God’s trust in us. It means transacting business in an honest way in the world and with God. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that when we have faith in Jesus, we recognize Him as “the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Gentleness is softness operating through faith. It is a disposition that is even-tempered, tranquil, balanced in spirit, and unpretentious. The person who possesses this quality pardons injuries, corrects faults, and rules his own spirit well.
Self-Control means that one has one’s emotions, power and strength under control. Such a person does not act in haste only to regret it at length.
Ten Lords-A-leaping means the Ten Commandments. In reading and applying the Ten Commandments, we must always consider what the words meant at the time they were used in the particular cultural context in which they were set. Here’s an example. Both versions of the Ten Commandments, one from Exodus and the other from Deuteronomy, give a list of things one should not covet, that is, one should not envy. In particular, the commandments mention a man coveting the wife of another man. It also said don’t covet someone else’s slave. In those days, wives and slaves were property, just like the other things one should not covet, like oxen and donkeys. If we were to read the commandments literally, it’s alright for a woman to covet another woman’s husband. Modernly, however, at least in the Western world, women are considered people equal to men, so the commandment against covetousness of spouses ought to be a two-way street. And of course, and slavery has been abolished and is now unacceptable no matter what the circumstances. No person can ever be the property of another person consistent with our notions of human dignity.
So, rather than reflexively interpret the Ten Commandments in the literal sense, I urge you to do the research and dig for the meaning of what their words meant in the time in which the events described in the Book of Exodus occurred. Think of the Ten Commandments as a living document, not a dead one set in stone.
Eleven Pipers Piping means the eleven faithful apostles. As you will recall, Jesus chose twelve apostles, but Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and was so ashamed of what he did that he committed suicide, which left eleven. The identities of the Apostles are different in all four canonical Gospels, but the agreed list is Peter, Andrew, James the Great, John, Bartholomew also known as Nathanael, James the Less, Jude, also called Thaddeus, Matthew, also called Levi, Phillip, Simon, and Thomas. In the Book of Acts, we learn that Matthias was chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot.
The Twelve Drummers Drumming represent the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed, the version of the Creed we use at Baptism and Confirmation. They are:
1. I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
4. Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified, died, and was buried.
5. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.
6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
9. the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
10. the forgiveness of sins,
11. the resurrection of the body,
12. and the life everlasting.
Reciting, or singing the Creed as we do here sometimes, is an important act of corporate worship for us. Although we may each have our own interpretations of the Creed, it is something we do together as a sign of unity.
I don’t know if the author of the lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” intended to give to it the meanings that I have ascribed to that song. Nonetheless, the issues I have discussed today should motivate us to take deep dive into concepts important to what it means to be a Christian.
The feast of the Epiphany has traditionally been associated with the Magi and their gifts, and the light of the star that lead them to the baby Jesus. If we dig deeper into the meaning of the traditional Christmas song as we did today, we will appreciate the practical value that each of these gifts represents for us as Christians and how Jesus enlightens our lives.
Much of what I said is about gifts we can give each other by way of attitude and personal behavior. Yes, Christmas is more than new clothes, books, games, decorations, and food. As Deacon Sharon told us two weeks ago, Christmas extends far beyond its twelve days but should permeate our lives all year. AMEN.