Twelve Days: Pipers Piping

I’m mildly proud of myself for getting almost all the way through a twelve-day Christmas devotional series before even mentioning the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” But here on day eleven, I’ve been thinking about the apocryphal story that the song originated as a kind of catechism for English Catholics to teach their children at a time when those Christians were often marginalized in an officially Protestant kingdom. For example, two turtledoves supposedly represented the two testaments of Scripture, one calling bird for each of the gospels, and a lord-a-leaping per commandment.

One of the many problems with that theory could also be a redemptive feature of a song I’ve always found annoying: none of the “secret meanings” of the twelve gifts reflect anything particularly distinctive to Catholicism. Any Christian could use the song as a teaching tool.

Or today, this Christian can use it as a blogging prompt. For on this eleventh day of Christmas, pipers piping have me thinking about the first Christians entrusted with sharing the story of Christ with the world: “the eleven faithful apostles.”

Domenico Ghirlandaio’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel, “The Calling of the Apostles” (1482) – Wikimedia

Already in this series, I’ve noted that the shortness of the Christmas season seems to fit the paucity of biblical stories dedicated to Jesus’ first three decades of life. But if we know little about their teacher’s formative years, we know even less about what brought his disciples to the point of following Jesus.

For some, the gospels tell us their location and occupation; for one, perhaps his politics. Past that, they enter the story as little more than names. The only time we’re given any direct hint of how their upbringing might have shaped the disciples is when the mother of John and James asks Jesus to give her sons a privileged position in the coming kingdom, which has always made me wonder about the personalities and parenting of Zebedee and his wife.

But if one error here would be to fill scriptural silence with speculation, another would be to act as if Jesus called blank slates whose lives started when Jesus met them. If James’ and John’s mother was overprotective or unduly concerned with status, she also helped raise them in such a way that they would respond in faith to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. At the same time that Jesus was becoming “strong, filled with wisdom” under his parents’ care in Nazareth (Luke 2:40), elsewhere in Galilee another fisherman was becoming impulsive, stubborn, and self-doubting, all the traits that would make Simon Peter such a frustrating and compelling figure in the early story of Christianity.

The Word “came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11) — but some did, following another John in testifying to the light that had entered the world. That light is a treasure entrusted to clay jars (2 Cor 4:6-7), but the material and how it was shaped into that form need not be perfect to be relevant.

To be honest, I feel like I’m running out of meaningful things to say as this series near its conclusion. But tentatively, on the pipers-a-piping day that my kids chiefly know as the awful moment when their winter break from online school ends, let me suggest this:

Perhaps the season of Christmas, dedicated to birth and what follows it, is a time to anticipate all the unseen, unremembered ways throughout the year to come by which we — parents and grandparents, teachers and pastors, coaches and mentors, and more — can help to mold the faith of young people who will one day respond to Christ’s invitation to follow him.

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