Excerpts from a sermon to the kids
When I was your age, not only did the Christmas lights go on at Thanksgiving, we had the plaza that had lots of lights, thousands of lights, almost as many as Antonina put up in the hall. It’s very beautiful. But we also in school had Christmas programs and sang Christmas songs. We sang “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” – songs that go to the very heart of the way that the Western Church understood the birth of Jesus – which, by the way, is the most Orthodox part of the Western Church because for a long time they celebrated Christmas with a great deal of respect for the fact that it was God becoming a human being. But now you can’t do that in schools anymore. What are some of the holiday songs you sing at school?
Kids: Jingle Bells, Silent Night
Fr. Joe: You get to sing Silent Night? Oh that’s nice. We’ll have to remember that. I used to have a principal – I taught at a school where there were only two kids in the whole school who were not African American. He said, “Mr. Hirsch, put together a program for us to celebrate the holiday.” And I said, “The Supreme court says you can’t do that in public schools.” And he said, “This ain’t religion. This is culture. We’re Christians, that’s our culture.” And so I did it.
A long time ago in England, in fact two times in England, children weren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas the way that they ought to. One was when the protestants took over and they wouldn’t let the kids who were Catholics – who at that time were, and still are, the closest thing to Orthodoxy – they wouldn’t let them have their mass. Even though they called Christmas “Christmas” – Christ Mass – which we’d call it Christ Liturgy, wouldn’t we? They wouldn’t let them celebrate it. Then the second time was when this terrible terrible dictator took over – Cromwell – and he sent people through the streets ringing bells saying, “No Christmas this year! No Christmas this year!” But people found secret ways to celebrate Christmas. They sang songs that people thought were just silly songs, but they all had a real meaning to them.
How many of you have heard the twelve days of Christmas? Most Americans think the twelve days of Christmas start twelve days before Christmas. The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days between 25th of December and Holy Theophany on the sixth of January. Those are the twelve days of Christmas. During that time, except on the 5th of January there’s no fasting – you can eat meat all those days even if you fast normally in your home. But, this song sounded like it was silly and people hear it and they think it’s silly. But the people who were singing it knew what it meant.
“The first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.” A partridge is a bird that if its children, its babies, are attacked, will throw itself in the face of the enemy and allow itself to be killed in order to save its babies. Who do you think was the partridge in the pear tree? (Child Answers: Jesus) What was the pear tree? (Child Answers: the cross) The cross, the tree of life. “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree” – that is the sacrificial who came to die so that we could live, and came to die on a cross and changed the cross into the tree of life.
“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtle doves.” What are two turtle doves? How many of you have a bible at home? How many of you have four bibles at home probably? Archie Bunker used to say on television that he kept his bible on his TV cause it kept sliding of his refrigerator. Anyway, we keep bibles, we don’t very often read them, but there’re two main parts to the bible? What are they?.... I’ll give you a hint: one of them starts with “old.” Yes! The old testament and the new testament. That is the two turtle doves. Now, you probably don’t know what a turtle dove is its – just a name for a certain kind of dove. So the old and new testaments
“On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens.” Now those stand for 3 virtues that St. Paul says last forever. What are they? (Child answers: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) That’s the Holy Trinity, and that would be a good answer. In fact, that’s what I told somebody once, but it’s not, it’s what? It’s the three vthings that St. Paul says last forever and they’re the names of three girls who died with their mother St. Sophia. Who were the three girls who died with their mother St. Sophia? Faith, hope and love; and so the three French hens are faith, hope, and love. St. Paul says they last forever.
“On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four calling birds.” Now in the New Testament there’s one kind of book that there are four of. What are they? Okay Julia. The gospels. What are the four gospels, according to Saints.. (together) Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They tell us the words of Jesus.
“On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five gold rings.” Those represent the first five books of the Old Testament that told about Jesus – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Now, the Old Testament came first but the song mentions the New Testament first because it’s more important.
“On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six geese a-laying.” How many days did it take God to make the world? (child answers) Six days! And on the seventh day God rested. And so each of those geese was sitting on an egg and when the egg hatched it was like a day of creation.
“On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming.” It refers to – you probably don’t know about these – the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to read them to you: wisdom, understanding, council – that’s good advice, fortitude – that’s courage, knowledge, piety – that’s being holy, and the fear of the Lord. Now the fear of the Lord’s not “I’m so scared God’s going to zap me with lightning.” The fear of the Lord is this kind of fear. Do you have somebody you love a whole lot? Your mommy, your daddy, your grandma or grandpa? (Child answers) Your dog? Would you want to kick your dog? (No) Why wouldn’t you kick your dog? (answer) Because she bites. I wouldn’t kick my dog a) because she might bite b) because I might hurt her. When you don’t do what God wants you to do, what do you do to God? You hurt his heart, don’t you? You hurt his feelings. You break the father’s heart and you put nails in Jesus hands when you’re bad. So, the fear of the Lord is not wanting to do anything to hurt God’s love of you.
“On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight maids a-milking.” And that reminds us of the eight beatitudes. You hear that almost every Sunday here: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. There are ten words that go together, ten sentences in the beatitudes. They’re like the new commandments, but there’s eight blessed and that’s what the number eight stands for.
The nine things are nine ladies dancing, and those stand for the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. That’s nine things that God causes to grow in us when we love and serve him: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (child) gentleness – who said that? Good for you! – and self control. That means having a handle on yourself so you can keep from doing bad things.
On the tenth day he gave ten lords a leaping. What are the ten things in the bible? Ten commandments. Right! That we should live by.
On the eleventh day he gave eleven pipers piping. Now this is going to be a little hard for you. There were twelve of these and then one of them turned bad and there were eleven. Yes? (Child: 12 apostles). And who was the one who turned bad? Yes? (Child: Judas)! So then there were eleven. Then the apostles filled in the twelfth again.
Now here’s the last one: twelve drummers drumming stand for the 12 points of belief in the creed. I’m going to give each a copy of the creed. We say it every Sunday but you need to learn it, and when your Sunday school teacher tells me – no matter how young or old you are – that you can recite it without looking at the paper, Fr. Joe’s going to give you a cross. Can anybody do it now? (kids shake heads) Yeah.
Now, these people had to keep their belief and their worship secret because they could have been hanged and drawn and quartered if the people had found out they were believers. They could have been torn into three pieces; had their hearts and vitals taken out of their bodies. They could have been tortured. But, they kept their faith alive. And this is the twelve days of Christmas. Someone told me once that under the communists there was going to be a baptism and somebody said, “We’re going to have a secret baptism at the church at midnight.” When the got to the church at midnight, guess who was there? Everyone in town. It was a secret everybody kept. They were all believers and remained believers but they had to do it at that place, at that time, in darkness. Other people I know in communist countries were baptized in monasteries. They would say, “I’m going to go visit this old building” and then they’d go in and get baptized. Normally monasteries don’t baptize people but when the communists were in control, they did. Other people went to embassy churches – churches run by the Antiochians, or by the Greeks, so that the government in their country wouldn’t know they were baptized. But they kept their faith alive. You don’t have to hide your Christianity, do you? So you be open about it okay? You be open. Don’t be obnoxious. Don’t make your teachers mad at you by telling people what your religion is, but if they ask, “What did you do over the holiday?” I want you to say “I went to liturgy and celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ” Okay?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ!