December 26th; Reflections for the Day After…
Boxing Day and the Feast of St. Stephen
The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
Well, it over… all the hoopla, feverish shopping, frantic decorating, elaborate entertaining, and all those droning MUSAK singing or the belching of carols by rock and rap stars…. Peace on Earth …at last! BAH HUMBUG! But for you die-hards… Remember that there is only 364 shopping days left before it all comes again!
From a pastoral perspective, the question of what does one talk about after Christmas is a challenging one… All the energies of young and old have gone into the last 24 hours which is the biggest commercial event and the greatest media hype of the whole year! I am glad you had enough strength, and yes, enough faith, to get here today.
You see, December 26th, is also an important day in the worship year, yet little is made of it in today’s churches.
“Good King Wenceslaus went out, on the feast of Stephen,” is the Christmas time carol that reminds us that Christmas, its emotional importance and shining spirit lasts longer than any decorated tree and goes deeper into the human heart than any material gift can penetrate. To my wide, yet reverent reckoning, each December 26th can celebrate or acknowledge 3 additional days when spiritual ideals can be better understood and practiced. The three remembrances for this day are FEAST DAY of SAINT STEPHEN, BOXING DAY; and of TURTLEDOVE DAY!
Let’s first summarize the historical reference and then work towards a modern and more inclusive consideration….
The central theme for traditional and liturgical Christians on this day is the message and life story of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Who or what is a martyr?
A martyr is someone who lives on the extremities of one’s faith- feeling compelled to embody an absolute idealism, while disregarding, and sometimes defying, the powers and pressures of conformity within society, religion, and belief. For martyrs nothing is as essential, as important as one’s belief or one’s faith. No one or no thing can threaten their connection to their God, and so as history and its iconic stories testify, only physical death appears to stop the immediate influence and profession of their faith. But their story rarely ends in death- sometimes its only the beginning….
A martyr’s devotion and attending nobility of character would often become legend, myth, and the subject of folk tales and dramas. This popularity along with the reverence and nobility of their lives sometimes passed the exclusive tests for the miraculous, and these rare but imperfect men and women of God became sainted, and then as role models for future generations who took up their cause, and renewed the work that promoted their vision in our world. …. I am sure that each of you could name others who, in your own compassionate thought and by the example of their convictions, exemplify lasting or transcendent values and beliefs…
Why is this day significant? This day was one of the first holidays or holy days set aside for remembrance by The Early Church. It was set a century or two before the bishops and the political hierarchies established the modern calendar or from when they created the church year, that was edited from original events and then traditionally created to begin with Advent. It was also before it was arbitrarily decided to celebrate Jesus’s birth on December 25th. (the actual date and time of his birth remains unknown… best estimates range from early February to mid March… Lambing time in Palestine…)
Additionally, for the first 3 to 400 years of its existence, the Early Church held their “Christmas” on Baptism Day or Epiphany, when God, through Jesus as the Christ, was acknowledged to the outside world, and when divinity came publicly alive in and through the humanity of Jesus.
So, over the development of the Christian year as handed down to mainline Christians and accepted as our Western religious calendar, it became quite ironic that the modern date for Christmas and the celebration of a Savior’s birth, was followed immediately by commemorating the death of the first Christian martyr. What can we make of this liturgical and cultural irony? How can we use it and how can it inform our faith and deepen our holiday devotions?
As the first of a pair of ironic juxtapositions during the Christmas season, (The second being the 27th -St. John, the apostle of unconditional love, the only apostle who did not die a tragic or cruel death, (after surviving being poisoned) followed by the 28th- the Commemoration of the slaughter by Herod of The Holy Innocents) Q’s: What might these paradoxical recognitions in our calendar be saying to us about the preciousness of life? Or the inevitability of death? Could it be that one’s faith makes both life and death meaningful? In the second pairing, is the lesson that the shadow side of love is power? So we have the terrible injustices of ego driven power contrasted to the qualities of unconditional love?
Here then, are some brief reflections on St. Stephen. Stephen was one of the early heroes in the book of Acts. He was put to death by religious zealots and fundamentalist rabbinical students. (Another incredible irony…
In some accounts, we find a rabid persecutor of Stephen was named Saul of Tarsus, who, over the course time, while on the road to Damascus, becomes blinded and then transformed into St. Paul…)
Q: Does that say something symbolically about blindness and transformation? Is there a difference between having sight and having vision?)
Now, these fundamentalists of that day felt completely justified in saying that Stephen was to be punished and that stoning was fit punishment for what they judged to be heresy and for the crime of blasphemy against their version of the Jewish teachings.
Remember, Stephen was killed for his assertion that the polite, conservative well to do Jews of that era were being disloyal to the teachings of the Prophets, and that since they would not listen to them, Jesus came to them to teach them the way towards God… But they would not listen to Jesus either…
So Stephen angered them with his honesty! Stephen being a religious radical (the word radical used here means someone who goes to the root of an idea, issue, or belief…) Which most often means that he or she will hold outlooks and convictions that upset the status quo and directly challenge the safe, secure ways of conventional religion….
Now, December 26th has another important meaning- a more generous and compassionate one… So on to the remembrance of Boxing Day…. for it observance teaches about honoring humility and having gratitude for services that are provided for you by others.
Boxing Day is an early Victorian celebration(?) that is still maintained and observed in parts of the British Isles, Canada, and the old empire such as Australia- our closest cultural, and religious ancestors.
Now to avoid any confusion or misinformation: While its long been known that the Irish, Welsh, and Scots are all a scrappy bunch, and have always tried to give the English Crown and the Parliament an uppercut or two, this day has nothing to do with boxing, fisticuffs, or pugilism! All we do know is that it is a holiday celebrated all across what once was called the British Empire, from England to New Zealand!
So what is Boxing Day? As elementary as the answer might seem, even Sherlock Holmes would have been stumped trying to find its exact origins… No one is completely sure how it all began! To our best reckoning, Boxing Day recalls the an uncertain date and time when public servants would carry a metal box with them as they made their appointed rounds or waited on their usual customers. This box was where they would put their hard earned pence, tuppence, any money gifts they might receive. If at all fortunate, this day after Christmas was the day when the aristocracy or the more affluent merchants would offer a half a crown or some gift to them for a year’s good service. A modern variation is the money card, or some kind of a gift certificate as a token of appreciation.
After the gift exchanges of the holiday, the Lord and Lady of the Manor would gather up their older belongings, and make presents of these fine quality castoffs to their servants. Most often these “extras” included food leftovers, millenary goods, gleanings from the harvest, and whatever did not sell from their sponsored artisans such as leather goods or pottery.
Later, during Victorian times, Boxing Day was popularized and became part of the Dickinsonian world. While it was more gentle, it nevertheless remained quite firm about maintaining the hierarchies of the culture with all its manners and mores.
This day gave witness to a less than harsh feeling of serf and master. This day was commemorated by remembering the unselfish service and caring they received as the aristocracy- and in some ways was a holiday concession or a symbolic acknowledgment of how they showed some pity and compassion. This is the retrospective yet noble sentiment forms the altruistic, possible background and the historical significance of the post Christmas carol,
“Good King Wenseslaus”…
What kinds of people were specially remembered on Boxing Day? As the Old English nursery rhyme goes, “The Butcher, the Baker, and the Candlestick Maker…” But all public servants qualify. Helpers and servers such as the mail carriers, paper boys, the train conductors, and ticket tenders; butlers, maids, the gardener, the nurses and nannies, the parson or the vicar, and of course, the local constable and the fire brigade… In short, all the people who made your life a little easier, cleaner, more enjoyable, and more safe. If you happen to maintain a relationship or at least exchange friendly feelings with any of these public servants, this is the day to offer recognition with some appreciation, or a little thank you gift.
How can we promote and redeem this day in our world? Concerning the ongoing need for recognition and appreciation, or to help correct the social attitude that lets some people be taken for granted, Boxing Day might well be a holiday for progressive and compassionate people to encourage and earnestly celebrate. As far as I understand it, and try to practice it,
sincere expressions of gratitude are always in season, and such caring is a clear sign that a person understands the gifts of life and that charity and caring are an expression of one of the chief Western values and virtues: practicing hospitality.
Hospitality is applying one’s faith and one’s gratitude for life by providing for others. As the Scriptures remind us, practice hospitality; for by caring about others, you are entertaining angels unawares.” It is a virtue that emphasizes the need for cooperation among family and church members, our neighbors, local town people. On a deeper level, these activities of Boxing Day are a part of our heartfelt witness, and provide us with tangible and workable steps we can take to promote more kindness in our world.
From our poetic and transcendental tradition, we can remember some of the inspirational statements that were regular readings in churches in the last century. We have The Vision of Sir Laurenfal and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote in his essay on Compensation are today’s examples
The Vision of Sir Launfal was a sympathetic and insightful spiritually inspired poem that purpose or them was to stir compassion in its readers or listeners:
“The gift without the giver is bare… A gift given in love feeds three: Himself, his hungering neighbor, and Me.”
And to paraphrase Emerson and combining it with lines from another essay, we can read:
“The greatest gift anyone can ever give another person is a portion of ones self. Without the efforts of giving or including a personal portion within a gift, it can become heartless- the exchange of simple commerce.”
As I see it, Boxing Day remembered is both an act of charity and an act of faith; it is showing appreciation and it is an expression of humility as well as acting to defy or take a stand against crassness, materialism, and cheap celebration.
In some very important ways, extending Christmas to include at least one more day, extends the effects of genuine caring in our world- acknowledging the fullness and the rightness of honoring others who make our lives easier, and more safe.
Can I summarize all the potential meaning of this day after? Well, let me try…. In an all too facile and fractious world where the Christmas spirit dies very quickly, when the music is rudely discarded, or when there is a mad rush to exchange all the gifts that are unwanted, we can remain inspired by the sacrifice of Stephen, who earnestly tried to live out his ideals, and we can remember the gracious generosity of Boxing Day with its loving kindness, and to know that expressions of love, integrity, sacrifice, and caring are always in season!
Being joyful and offering tidings of comfort and joy during this season is a good start, but the spiritual aspiration is found in the task to remain joyful and being willing to work for more reasons to celebrate the good of God in your lives and the good that can be found in this church community all year long… That might be the true prize and the best present… For it represents the greatest gifts we can give to one another. AMEN
Selected reading: Reflection on St. Stephen
“Good King Wenceslaus went out, on the feast of Stephen,” is the Christmas time carol that reminds us that Christmas, its emotional importance and shining spirit lasts longer than any decorated tree and goes deeper into the human heart than any material gift can penetrate. From the life of St. Stephen, we can receive many timeless, season long insights. As one person who has reflected on this seasonal irony, where birth is immediately followed by death, and how it has affected her life said to me:
“‘The kind of love that would have brought Christ to earth, also would raise Stephen to heaven. anyone who walks in love can’t go astray nor remain afraid. Love guides both birth and death, it protects us at our beginnings and comforts and completes us at our end.”
Stephen was a fearless and forgiving witness, extending the message of Jesus and starts our yearlong, lifelong appreciation of his message to humankind… May we continue the joy of Christmas beyond a day, and carry its message of redeeming love and selfless service into everyday of the year.
Yet As spiritual people living within human society, we can affirm that one’s integrity and one’s commitment to their ethical and spiritual ideals becomes one of only a few things that will give you any sense of completeness or satisfaction…
Being willing to live or give birth to one’s faith… And being willing to lose or die for one’s sense of integrity and wholeness can never be undervalued.
From the life of St. Stephen, we can receive many timeless, season long insights. As one person who has reflected on this seasonal irony, where birth is immediately followed by death, and how it has affected her life said to me:
“The kind of love that would have brought Christ to earth, also would raise Stephen to heaven. Anyone who walks in love or who lives a life of such integrity can’t go astray nor remain afraid. Love then can be seen as guiding both birth and death, it protects us at our beginnings and comforts and completes us at our end.”
Stephen was a fearless and forgiving witness, extending the message of Jesus and his remembrance starts our yearlong, lifelong appreciation of the Christian message to humankind… May we continue the joy of Christmas beyond a day, and carry its message of redeeming love and selfless service into everyday of the year.
Holy God, who has given us all of our days of life;
We ask that, following each day in Your example, we do not quickly lose the selfless spirit of Christmas. In Stephen’s life, we see Jesus repeated, and our need emphasized. We pray to be brave and forgiving like they both were. May our search for understanding deepen our search for faith, and provide comfort and console us in times of trial and testing.
May we, like Jesus and Stephen, be willing to bear sorrow and joy, despair and hope, and to live… and perhaps be willing to die for your Righteousness sake. Let us enter into the silence….. Peace be to all struggling hearts, peace be with you…