January confusion

Ernest Skublics is bemused by the different feasts this month and offers his own suggestion

Once again we must preach our way through a complex sequence of feasts. Christmas and Epiphany have been followed in various configurations by feasts of the Circumcision of Jesus, his Name, the Motherhood of Mary, the Baptism of Jesus and his Presentation in the Temple, all culminating in his being driven out into the desert, and Lent, preparing us for our baptismal/paschal re-living of his Passover.

New Year's Day

Let us start with 1 January. Even in my life-time there have been changes. Frankly, as a youth I thought there was some artificiality about contriving a feast for New Year's Day, which had no ecclesial significance. Making it a 'holy day of obligation' was a sanctimonious intrusion into what was a good morning to sleep in after a late night. Admittedly, the Circumcision of the Lord was legitimately remembered on the eighth day after Christmas [Luke 2.21]. This observance was of course retained in the BCP.

Then there has been a feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, floating around since the end of the Middle Ages, eventually finding its way into the Roman calendar in the eighteenth century, for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. Pius X moved it to the Sunday between the Circumcision and the Epiphany, and in 1969 it was abolished. Which seemed to be a good enough reason for Common Worship to introduce it - in addition to the Circumcision - for 1 January! Meanwhile Rome moved the hitherto insignificant feast of the Motherhood of Mary to New Year's Day, as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Well, if we are that confused, I may have been right as a teenager to think it was a good morning to stay in bed. Then I discovered that Mary, Mother of God had been there in the first place. Oh well!

The manifestation of the Lord

Now the Epiphany has an interesting history. Epiphany - or Theophany - was the original feast, not only of the Birth of Jesus, and so the Manifestation of God in the flesh, attested from the third century onwards, but originally it also commemorated this Manifestation by both the birth and the baptism of the Lord. Then, when the Western feast of Christmas in December came to be celebrated in the East as well, towards the end of the fourth century, the primary emphasis of the Epiphany shifted to the Baptism.

It was therefore also a time for the baptism of catechumens; the blessing of water, for baptisms and other devotional purposes, also became a feature, more particularly in the East, while in the West the Manifestation theme was expanded to the Gentiles, represented by the three Magi. The Manifestation of God in Jesus is also illustrated by the account of his first reported miracle, at the wedding feast of Cana. All these themes are beautifully woven together in the Liturgy.

Lastly in this development, the commemoration of the Baptism of Christ was eventually shifted in the West from the Epiphany to the Sunday after. But then we have the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple at Candlemas - formerly called the Purification of Our Lady- at the end of the season, after the Baptism of the adult Christ, launching him on his public ministry, and remembering his first miracle.

And now what?

As this quick review suggests, the shape and sequence of these feasts have by no means been static and stable over the last two millennia. It suggests there is room for further adjustment.

At the least one could suggest that the Baptism of our Lord would more properly be celebrated either on the Last Sunday before Lent or on the First Sunday of Lent, when the gospel, in all three years, brings us to the Jordan where Jesus, once baptized, is driven out into the desert for forty days. Such an arrangement would also afford the homiletic opportunity to relate the Baptism of Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, with our baptism, or its renewal, as well as with the preparation of catechumens for their baptism, ideally to follow at Easter.

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