26 December 2010

Two turtle doves on the Second Day of Christmas

On the Second Day of Christmas ... two turtle doves

Patrick Comerford

Today is 26 December, Saint Stephen’s Day and the Second Day of Christmas. In many places, this day is also known as Boxing Day, for on this day Christmas boxes were given to service workers, such as postal workers and trades people. It is a holiday in several countries, and whatever the explanation for the name “Boxing Day,” it is a reminder that this is a day to be generous to those who are less fortunate than we are. The day after Christmas Day is a particularly good day to put the spirit of giving into practice.

Giving is so appropriate, for this day celebrates the first person to give his life for Christ, Saint Stephen, who was also one of the first deacons ordained to serve the poor.

Some years ago, (Bishop) Michael Burrows argued persuasively in the General Synod of the Church of Ireland that when 26 December falls on a Sunday our priority should be to observe this day as Saint Stephen’s Day rather than as the First Sunday of Christmas, for there is a close link between witnessing to the Incarnate Christ and the suffering of the Martyrs.

An icon of Saint Stephen, the first deacon and the martyr

Another saint closely associated with this day is Saint Wenceslas of Bohemia whose charity to the poor on Saint Stephen’s Day is remembered in John Mason Neale’s well-loved carol.

In the Orthodox tradition, the second day of Christmas is known as the “Synaxis of the Theotokos,” and commemorates the role of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation. In other years in the Orthodox tradition, the Sunday after the Nativity has its own liturgical commemoration in honour of “The Righteous Ones”: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, and James the Brother of the Lord.

The second verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

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

The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the two turtle doves as figurative representations of the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The Lectionary provides two sets of readings for the Eucharist today:

The First Sunday of Christmas: Isaiah 63: 7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2: 10-18; Matthew 2: 13-23.

Saint Stephen: II Chronicles 24: 20-22; Psalm 119: 161-168; Acts 7: 51-60; Matthew 10: 17-22.

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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