27 December 2010

Three French hens on the Third Day of Christmas

On the Third Day of Christmas ... three French hens

Patrick Comerford

The Third Day of Christmas, 27 December, is marked in some parts of the Roman Catholic tradition as the Feast of the Holy Family, but it is the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist in the Book of Common Prayer throughout the Anglican Communion. This is the second of three Prayer Book Holy Days immediately following Christmas Day.

Traditionally, in the Western church, the third and final Masses of Christmas, the “Mass of the Day,” has as its Gospel the beginning of Saint John’s Gospel, which proclaims the mystery of the Word made flesh. Throughout the 12 Days of Christmas this year, the readings for the Eucharist in the daily lectionary of the Church of Ireland take us gently through the First Letter of Saint John, and time and again call us back to reading the Gospel according to Saint John.

“Little children, love one another” ... Saint John on his death-bed, from the Saint John window in Chartres Cathedral.

Jerome, in his commentary on Galatians 6 (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that John the Evangelist continued preaching even when he was in his 90s and was so enfeebled with old age that they had to carry him into the Church on a stretcher. And when he was no longer able to preach or to deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”

This continued on, week-by-week, even when the ageing John was on his deathbed. Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out.

Every week the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?”

And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.” If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one: “Little children, love one another.”

As far as John is concerned, if you have put your trust in Christ, then there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in this letter, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

According to ancient tradition, Saint John was once given a cup of poisoned wine, but drank it with no ill effect. A chalice with a serpent signifying the powerless poison is one of his symbols. In spite of exile and attempts to kill him, Saint John lived to a great old age. The image of Saint John with the poisoned chalice is still seen above the main gate of Saint John’s College, Cambridge (right, photograph: Patrick Comerford).

There is a custom in some places of blessing wine on this day, Saint John’s Day, and drinking a toast to the love of God and to the saint. Today is a good day to spend some time reading and meditating on the opening words of his Gospel, John 1: 1-14, or to begin reading the Letters of Saint John.

In the Orthodox tradition, this third day of Christmas is known also the feast day of the Protodeacon and Protomartyr Saint Stephen.

The third verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, begins to show some metrical variance:

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
three French hens,
two turtle doves,
and a partridge in a pear tree.

The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the three French hens as figurative representations of the three theological virtues – faith, hope and love (see I Corinthians 13: 13). Others say they represent the three persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or the three gifts of the Wise Men, gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: Exodus 33: 7-11a; Psalm 117; I John 1; John 21: 19b-25.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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