I 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:
- Celebrate the Feast of Mary Mother of God on the Sunday Between Christmas and January 1st (where we celebrate Holy Family now).
- 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.
- Restore the Feast of the Circumcision to January 1st.
- Return Epiphany to January 6th where this is not currently the case.
- 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: