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December’s lesser known holidays

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Local News: This week Gateway Rescue Mission, one of Jackson's most respected ministries for the homeless, will be going above and beyond to offer a good, safe Christmas to those in Jackson without homes. According to Gateway's web site, the ministry serves about 400 meals per day. Also, on an average night about 100 homeless people are in safe shelter at one of Gateway Rescue Mission's facilities. Gateway receives no government funding and relies entirely on private donations. Please consider making a gift to Gateway during this holiday season. To make an online donation to Gateway, click here.

Though Christmas has long been the best-known holiday in the month of December, on the Church calendar there are a number of other “minor feasts” that commemorate people and events close to the life of Christ. For example, December 21 is the Feast of St. Thomas, December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen, December 27 is the Feast of St. John, and December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

Taking these in order, we will look first at Thomas, the apostle of Jesus.

1. St. Thomas

Here are a few lesser known facts about the apostle Thomas, taken from the web site of the Orthodox Church in America:

• Before being called to be a disciple, Thomas, who was born in the city of Pansada, had been a fisherman.
• According to Scripture, Thomas disbelieved the reports of the other disciples about Christ’s resurrection. He insisted on seeing Jesus for himself: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). A week after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to Thomas and showed him His wounds. Thomas’ response was, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
• According to tradition, Thomas founded Christian churches in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Parthia, Ethiopia and India. When he led the wife and son of the prefect of the Indian city of Meliapur to Christ, he was arrested and locked up in prison, where he suffered torture. Finally, he was killed, being pierced with spears.

2. St. Stephen

We don’t know much about Stephen, except for the information contained in Acts 7-9. Sometimes he is regarded as one of the first “deacons” in Christian history, His preaching of redemption through trusting in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross ruffled feathers, specifically in the hierarchy of Jewish leadership of the day. He was brought before the Sanhedrin, on false, misrepresenting charges, and in the end, they decided to stone him. In dying for his faith in Christ so early in the book of Acts, Stephen is usually regarded as the first martyr of the Christian church. Saul of Tarsus, who later because St. Paul, was fully on board with Stephen’s death. The New Testament tells he was there “giving consent” or “expressing approval” as Stephen was being stoned to death.

3. St. John

The following is a compilation of facts regarding the apostle John, also taken from the web site of the Orthodox Church in America:

• John was the son of Zebedee and Salome. His brother, James, was another of the Twelve Apostles.
• Common nicknames for John were John of Patmos, and the Beloved Disciple.
• John was the author of five books in the New Testament: the Gospel of John, three Epistles of John, and the Book of Revelation.
• John’s Gospel is very different from the “synoptic” gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. Tradition holds that the bishops of Asia Minor requested him to write his gospel to deal with the heresy of the Ebionites, who taught that Christ did not exist before Mary.
• Jesus referred to John and his brother James as "sons of thunder”. At one point John and his brother James wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town, but Jesus rebuked them.
• Following the instruction of Jesus from the Cross, John took Mary, the mother of Jesus, into his care as the last legacy of Jesus. In 54 AD, Mary the mother of Jesus died and was buried and so John fulfilled his duty of caring for her until the very end.
• After Jesus' Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, John and Peter took a prominent part in the founding and guidance of the church. In Acts 3, he is with Peter at the healing of the lame man in the Temple. Later in Acts, he is with Peter visiting the newly converted in Samaria.
• According to tradition, John went to Ephesus and was later banished by the Roman authorities to the Greek island of Patmos. John was banished after being plunged into boiling oil in Rome and suffering no harm. It is said that everyone in the Coliseum audience was converted to Christ after seeing this miracle.
• Christian tradition holds that of the 11 remaining apostles after Judas Iscariot’s death, John outlived the other apostles—all of whom suffered martyrdom. John's tomb is believed to be in Selçuk, a small town in the Ephesus area.

4. The Holy Innocents

December 28 is a time to commemorate the thousands of children who were killed in Bethlehem shortly after Jesus’ birth. King Herod was enraged at the idea of a new “King of the Jews” being born, so in an effort to eliminate the threat of Jesus, he ordered all boys in the Bethlehem vicinity, two years and under, to be slaughtered.

Commemorating the multitudes of baby boys killed shortly after Christ’s birth adds a somber element to our otherwise lighthearted Christmas celebration. It reminds us that, though Christ’s birth was “good news of great joy”, it wasn’t received as such by many. While some traveled far to worship the Christ Child, others were desperate to kill him.

In a sense, this is the response that Christ continued to bring out in people throughout his life. No one in the gospels is ever said to have had merely a passing interest in Jesus. He evokes fear and worship in some, and he evokes hatred and malice in others. He made claims about himself, claims to be the Divine Son of God, and these claims forced people to reckon with him. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, we can fall down at Christ’s feet and worship him as God, or we can spit at him and kill him as a demon. What we can’t do, Lewis explained, is express mild approval of Jesus, leave it at that, and keep him at a safe distance. Christmas forces us to make a choice. Are we going to worship the Christ Child, believing he is God’s Son sent to redeem the world from sin? Or are we going to shun him, seeing him as a threat to our own security and our own agenda?

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