On Time Warps and Missing Feasts – A Critique of the Puzzling Cycle of Christmas Feast

123013I must admit that I have a few concerns about the Christmas Liturgical Calendar and I am interested in your thoughts on the matter.

1. In the First place I think that having the Feast of the Holy Family inside the Octave is a mistake. This is due, not to the feast per se, but especially to the Gospel readings that are selected for the Feast.

In cycle A we read of the flight to Egypt, an event that takes place after the Epiphany which we have yet yet to  celebrate! In effect, we jump forward in time either weeks, or even two years, (depending on when we reckon Epiphany to have taken place historically, (for some scholars think the Epiphany may have take place up to two years after the birth, which I personally doubt)). After having jumped forward in time and place (Egypt), we then go back in time and place, (Bethlehem), to celebrate Epiphany on January 6th or the nearest Sunday.

If this were not bad enough Cycle B takes us forty days forward in time for the Feast of the Presentation (also called the Purification). This too is a jump forward in time for the Rite of Purification was to take place forty days after birth by Jewish law and custom. That is why we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd.

Even worse, Cycle C takes us 12 years into the future as we read of the finding of Jesus in the Temple. Then suddenly we are back to the infant Jesus for the feast of Epiphany.

All this temporal displacement could be avoided if we returned the Feast of the Holy Family back to the Sunday after Epiphany where it was prior to 1970. Indeed the Traditional Latin Mass still has the feast located there and uses the Gospel of the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. As such it provides a nice bridge from the infant Jesus we had at Epiphany to the Adult Jesus we have and the Baptism of the Lord and the Sundays following. It also avoids the temporal whiplash which the calendar and Christmas cycle causes by celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday inside the Christmas Octave.

2. A second concern I have is the loss of the Feast of the Circumcision and the giving of the Lord’s Name. As you likely know, Jewish boys were circumcised on the 8th Day, and their name was announced. Until 1960 we celebrated the octave day of Christmas as the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. More than the Circumcision we also celebrated the giving of Jesus’ name. However in 1960 Pope John XXIII renamed January 1st as simply, “the Octave Day of Christmas,” though the Gospel of the Circumcision continued to be read. In 1970, the Feast came to be designated as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

However! – Now in this matter, my preference for the Feast of the Circumcision is rooted in my preference for a proper chronology that follows the Biblical Data as close as possible. But to be fair, the designation of the Octave Day as “Mary Mother of God” has some very strong arguments for it, I must say.

Evidence for the celebration of this feast goes back in the Roman Church all the way to the 7th Century. Prior to that, there is evidence of this feast being celebrated in other parts of Europe, but usually on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. By the 13th and 14th Centuries, however, the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord came to replace this feast, and the Feast of Mary Mother of God was eventually moved to October 11th and renamed the feast of the “Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Just after Vatican II The more ancient feast of Mary Mother of God was restored to January 1st. So, in the first place we see that the Feast of Mary Mother of God on January 1st is the more ancient practice and this is a strong argument in its favor.

The feast also commemorates a very central dogma, most appropriate for the Christmas season: that since Christ is one person with two natures (human and Divine), then Mary is rightly called the Mother of God. Mary is Mother of God because Jesus is God. Some had wanted to argue that she only gave birth to his human nature and, hence, is only mother of what is human in him. But Jesus is ONE PERSON with two natures. This is something called in theology the “hypostatic union” and it is an essential teaching on Christ. He unites, in one person, the human nature and the divine nature. There are not two “Jesuses.” Neither is it true that his Divine nature came upon him at a later time such as his baptism. No, his two natures were united in his one person from the moment of of his human conception. And since Jesus is one, Mary gives birth, and is mother to the whole Christ. Mary is Mother of God because Jesus is God and Jesus is one. This title was given to Mary at the Council of Ephesus in 431 in defense of Christ’s divinity. The Greek form of this title is Θεοτόκος (Theotokos) translated more literally as “God Bearer.”

Still! – I love the Blessed Mother, and surely affirm her under this proper title. But I regret the loss of the Feast of the Circumcision. As stated, I generally prefer to stick as close to the Biblical narrative as possible. In this case Scripture is clear, on the eighth day (i.e. January 1st for us), Jesus was circumcised and his name given. Three important truths and events are celebrated here. First that Jesus was born under the law and submitted himself to it so that he might fulfill it. Secondly there is the first shedding of blood, and this refers to the passion. Thirdly his name is announced: Jesus, a name which means “God saves.” There is no other name given to men by which we are to be saved, there is no other blood that can atone for our sins than the blood of Jesus and there is no one who can fulfill the Law as Jesus does. It seems a bit of a loss not to explicitly celebrate these truths about Jesus on the very day (the eighth day) they happened.

3. A third concern is the moving of Epiphany in many parts of the world to the nearest Sunday. This troubles me greatly. Epiphany is a very important feast of the Church and completes the the 12th day of the Christmas feast. January 6th is the proper day for this feast going back to the 4th Century. Now many argue that the Feast is important and that is why it should be moved to the nearest Sunday so that many more will experience it. However, it is a fact that this inevitably shortens the Christmas Cycle. The liturgical calendar sets forth sacred time, and it seems a very bad idea to allow the demands of the secular world for convenience to intrude on sacred time. Christmas is OUR time and OUR feast. It seems as though the tail is wagging the dog here. Too many Catholics allow the world to influence how they celebrate Christmas. Christmas does not end December 26th or January 2nd. It ends January 6th. Better that we should catechize our faithful as to the importance of this feast and even set it as a holy day of obligation than to move it. It is true that fewer will experience the feast, even if we oblige it, but at least the Church will speak more clearly to full mystery of the Christmas feast rather than rush its completion and cave to worldly schedules. IMHO.

4. Lastly, the Christmas Octave is quite “interrupted” by feasts that are often extraneous to it: St. John Apostle, St. Stephen, St. Thomas Becket. Here too the feast of St. Stephen on December 26 is quite ancient, probably predated the celebration of Christmas liturgically. St. John’s Feast is also quite ancient. Less, so St. Thomas Becket, though his feast may predate the declaration of Christmas as an “octave.” Thus, there may be little we can do about these feasts due to their ancient origins in the late December calendar. Even the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 28), while part of the Christmas story, is celebrated out of proper temporal order and belongs somewhere after Epiphany if we were to try and restore some order to the temporal whiplash of the Christmas cycle.  At any rate, the upshot of the Christmas Octave is that it is Chaotic and temporally unsettling.

You may wish to dispute these regrets of mine and I hope you will use the comments section to advance your points. Obviously, greater minds in the Church than I have decided on these matters and do not agree with yours truly.

I suppose though, if I had it my way, here is what I would do:

  1. Celebrate the Feast of Mary Mother of God on the Sunday Between Christmas and January 1st (where we celebrate Holy Family now).
  2. Move the Feast of the Holy Family to the Sunday after Epiphany (where it used to be before 1970). This Feast seems better celebrated after Epiphany as a kind of bridge: Jesus at 12 years of age links the infant Christ and the adult Christ as we return to Ordinary time.
  3. Restore the Feast of the Circumcision to January 1st.
  4. Return Epiphany to January 6th where this is not currently the case.
  5. Holy Innocents could be celebrated sometime after the Feast of the Presentation or at least after Epiphany, but before Holy Family.

But nobody is asking me from Rome what I think! 🙂 So enjoy my “rant” for what it is: , just a slight case of temporal whiplash, grief for a feast that is missing in action and a wish to tweak the Christmas calendar so it flows a little better.

Enjoy The Ave Maria by Rachmaninoff.

And for those of you who prefer a more modern Christmas, here is a virtual and iPad Christmas:

North Point’s iBand from North Point Web on Vimeo.

22 Replies to “On Time Warps and Missing Feasts – A Critique of the Puzzling Cycle of Christmas Feast”

    1. It makes so much sense and I too have been feeling the same way about all of the topics you mentioned for some time now.

      For me the Christmas Season isn’t over until the 2nd of February, Candlemas day; the feast of the Presentation – it makes no sense to me otherwise.

      1. The Joys and sorrow of Our Lady; the Presentation in the Temple and Simeon’s prophesy.

  1. Cheers for you, Father! I have been thinking this way for years, silently grumbling to myself.

    Being on the RCIA teaching team, I am always urging my catechumens to enter deeply into the readings and accompany Our Lord through the events of His sacred life— and then am left feeling annoyed and embarrassed when the readings are out of order, too skimpy, and (worst upon worst) not even addressed in the homily. It’s because the Calendar’s bumfoozled.

    The worst (did I say something else was worst? Well, this is worst, too) is losing the Feast of the Circumcision. It makes the important points that Jesus was indisputably Jewish, indisputably male, indisputably fulfilling the Law, — in this world of mishmash multiculturalism, gender confusion, and antinomianism, it’s *bracing*, an act of cultural *resistance*, to celebrate Christ as an Observant! Jewish! Male!

    Good, I got that off my chest. Until next year.

    Pope for Pope, sez I! ;oP

  2. While we’re at it why not move Christmas to where it belongs-and celebrate with the Eastern church? ..Oh..and let’s do away with horrendous ‘Christmas carols’..we could begin with Away in a Manger.

  3. Dear Monsignor,
    Once again you make perfect sense. We seem to have lost the ‘narrative’ around this time.
    When we begin to see events as complete in themselves (such as particular celebration of feast-days at ‘odd times’) then we cannot begin to understand if there is a link between them and everything else in our faith.
    We are indeed becoming more and more compliant with the requirements of our secular culture such as avoiding the practice of Holy Days of Obligation during the week.
    These actions undermine our Faith and try to make it and us more acceptable to the world.

    Many thanks once again and long may you continue in you work

    Kevin P

  4. I agree completely, especially about Epiphany. I was raised a High Church Episcopalian, and Epiphany was a major celebration in our parish. My father also used it as a teaching tool, to help us understand the full significance of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Now, a Catholic convert, I carry with me that thirst for the full celebration of the Christmas season. January 6th is the day, and the heck with convenience.

  5. I was thinking about this myself in the realm of January 1. Aren’t there two designations: Mary Mother of God, alternating with World Day of Peace (or something similar)? There are two Marian holy days of obligation in addition to many others throughout the year. I remember January 1 as being the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord. I don’t think I ever had its importance explained the way you did. I appreciate that.

  6. Amen, Amen, Amen. Feast of the Epiphany is a huge feast in Latin America, Austria and Italy, that I know of. Kids don’t go back to school til after the 6th and it’s a a holiday from work. I Hate that we have downgraded it. It should go back on the calendar as a Holy Day of Obligation. I really like your rearranging the feasts and celebrations, too. What were they thinking?

  7. Actually, most of what you propose sounds good. Epiphany is such an important time and now seems to be lost in the shuffle. However, I would leave Jan. 1 as Mary’s feast day, as it is now; there is nothing I look forward to more than celebrating the new year dedicating it to our Blessed Mother! Perhaps the Feast of the Circumcision could reign supreme on that Sunday in between Christmas and N.Yrs.
    Alas, no one from Rome has consulted me either!
    Many thanks for your beautiful posts!

  8. This too has bugged me for years. The real question is how do we get you and Pope Francis together to discuss?

  9. I never really thought about the chronology of the Christmas season, but you’re right: it is a little scrambled. I absolutely agree about the “nearest weekend” feasts: Epiphany, Corpus Christi, and — my personal favorite — Ascension Thursday Sunday.

  10. Blame it all on Constantine who started this whole conundrum back in 336 A.D.

  11. I spent some time in an Eastern Catholic parish and their liturgical calendar made much more Biblical sense as regards the Christmas season. I would love to see the Feast of the Circumcision returned to its proper place, as well as Ascension on Thursday. Our Roman calendar needs fixing.

  12. I agree with every word Monsignor. I taught in Catholic schools for over 30 years. What a surprise when
    the Circumcision disappeared without warning. No-one ever explained why not even to us teachers and
    catechists. I was even more surprised to find the day had been given over to Our Lady who already had The Annunciation, The Assumption( H.of O. here in U.K.), Our Lady’s Birthday, Immaculate Conception and more,
    not to mention the whole month of May. I have never seen the sense of taking a feast away from Our Lord to give yet another to His Mother. Your arrangement of Christmas makes much more sense than what we have at the moment.

  13. Monsignor, You seem to be developing your own cult following. Beware. Perhaps silent prayer and time away from blogging would be advised. For the time being, “Rome” does not need your advice.

    1. Hmm… I sense some hostility here. For the record, I am aware that Rome does not need my advice. Just a faithful Catholic here pondering a puzzling state of affairs, just as I ponder your hostility. Beware. I might also add that I don’t need YOUR advice either about how to spend my time. Stick to issues and avoid personal attacks please.

  14. Actually, my preference would be much more drastic:

    The Octave of the Theophany
    December 25: The Nativity of our Lord
    December 26: The Circumcision of our Lord
    December 27: The Presentation of or Lord
    December 28: The Visitation of the Magi
    December 29: The Flight to Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents
    December 30: Our Lord in the Temple
    December 31: The Ministry of the Forerunner
    January 1: The Baptism of our Lord

    Ordinary Time would then begin on January 2.

    Just my $0.02.


  15. Dear Msgr. Charles Pope, Thank you for sharing this with us, I am grateful to have learned something that helps me gain a deeper understanding of our Roman Catholic Faith. I shall wish our Priest a Bonne Fete for the Circumcision of our Lord / Solennité de Sainte Marie Mère de Dieu, later today.

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