“On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five gold rings – four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”
Remember the tale of the Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen? Misclassified from birth, the duckling grows up with the heart of a swan. Once becoming strong under the care of kind humans, the duckling is set free and finds its image for the first time in a pool of water. The duckling is transformed into what it always was inside – a graceful swan.
How well this tale reminds us of our own inherent power and beauty. Early Church Fathers considered seven gifts essential to living true to the image in which we’re created: wisdom, understanding, wonder and awe, right judgment, knowledge, courage, and reverence.
Isn’t this quite a stretch from a verse in a folk song whose lyrics first appeared in an eighteenth century children’s book, Mirth without Mischief? And isn’t the “ugly duckling” just something for children? Jesus scolded his disciples for that kind of attitude. He said, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children” (Matthew 19:14). And the great prophet before him said, “A little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
“Seven swans a-swimming” speak well of our need for those seven gifts of the Spirit. These qualities help us see and express our own inherent beauty. They are not qualities to be achieved but received! Just as the ugly duckling needed to receive the care of others before it could discover its own grace and elegance, so do we.
This is what God gives us through one another. I’m not as wise as I’m made to be without the guidance and support of others. I’m not as understanding as I’m made to be without the understanding others give me. And so with all the other gifts. These qualities may at heart be ours, too. But we can’t know and practice them – without help beyond ourselves.