The Christmas season lasts a spare twelve days—but at least half of them are prayer book Feasts if the two possible Sundays are included! The season begins on Christmas Day, December 25th, and runs up to the eve of Epiphany. It is a season of rejoicing that focuses on the Incarnation and on the mystery of Immanuel: God with us. Yet, the rejoicing of the season is tempered a bit by the character of the Holy Days that, very early on, became associated with Christmas. This season is one of the most complicated in terms of rubrical gymnastics because there are four fixed Holy Days in a row, any one of which could be a Sunday in any given year: Christmas Day, Saint Stephen, Saint John, and the Holy Innocents. A note in the collects section establishes that if a Sunday happens to fall on any of the latter three days, that day and any successive day are pushed back by one. (For instance, if Sunday falls on the day after Christmas, the 26th is celebrated as the First Sunday after Christmas, the 27th honors Saint Stephen, the 28th honors Saint John, and the 29th honors the Holy Innocents.)
These Holy Days have been attached to Christmas for a very long time; they tend to put some perspective on the joy of Christmas. St. Stephen is referred to as the “Protomartyr”—the first of the martyrs. He is the first of Christ’s followers who suffers death because of the faith, and the story is consciously told in such a way to mirror the death of Christ himself. This death is recorded in Acts 7; parallel to Jesus, Stephen commends his soul to God and forgives his persecutors—the young Paul among them. Historically, the liturgies of the Church have focused on two aspects of the feast of Stephen. First, in his death like Jesus, his prayer is effective: Paul is himself converted and this conversion is greatly attributed to Stephen’s prayer. Second, both prayers and hymns catalogue a number of antitheses or dramatic and ironic reversals between the Nativity and the death of Stephen: Christ was born to the world, but Stephen died to the world; Christ conferred life, Stephen endured death; Christ descended to humanity, Stephen ascended; Christ came to earth, Stephen went to heaven, etc. The underlying reminder here is that while Christ came to share the life of God with the world, this way is none other than the way of the cross.
Next, we celebrate St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. The only apostle not to suffer a martyr’s death, the connection between John and Christmas comes preeminently through the famous opening of his Gospel—which has been read at the third Eucharist of Christmas ever since we have records of such readings. No other gospel account captures quite so effectively the sense of Incarnation as John’s Prologue (John 1:1-18) and the high point of that passage is verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, as of the only Son from the Father” (ibid.).
The third Holy Day is the feast of the Holy Innocents which, like Stephen, gives Christmas a darker turn. While it commemorates an event from Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:16-18), its inclusion in this cluster of feasts around the Nativity itself underscores that we know how the story will go: innocence is no guarantee of safety and the innocent Lord of Life—himself an infant at this point—will in his own turn be condemned to die.
The next feast of Christmas is more benign even if it celebrates an occasion that may seem an odd liturgical moment: the feast of the Holy Name. This is a Feast of the person of our Lord and, as such, should be celebrated even if a Sunday falls on this day. It’s also our first “octave” day of the year. Under the pre-Reformation systems, certain important feasts would be celebrated for a whole week afterward—liturgically if not otherwise—and Christmas was certainly one of them. Thus, January 1st falls the week after December 25th—seven days after, but eight if you begin counting with Christmas itself. What’s interesting about this day is that, in addition to being the octave of Christmas, it also celebrates a biblical event: the Circumcision of Jesus which, as with any good Jewish lad, occurred eight days after his birth as recorded in Luke 2:21. The ceremony of circumcision also included the naming rite; our current prayer book prefers the more delicate “Holy Name” rather than former books’ “Circumcision of our Lord.” More than just recording a biblical event, this feast reminds us of an important corollary to the fact of the Incarnation: it explicitly reminds us of the scandal of particularity—that Jesus was born as a specific person in a specific culture (which is not our culture). Circumcision brought him into God’s covenant with the children of Abraham, locating him within a people, affirming and confirming his Jewish identity.
The doctrine of the Incarnation sometimes gets short shrift because the season dedicated to it is so brief and falls at a time that is so often given over to travel, family, and holidays rather than church. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important doctrines of the faith and it can—and has—been argued that Anglicanism in particular has a special affinity with it. Indeed, the statement of the Incarnation was one of the greatest stumbling-blocks of Christianity in its first few centuries. People could get behind a God who loved them. People could get behind a God who worked wonders, even the resurrection. But the idea that a God, a divine spirit-being, would stoop to sully himself with matter—fallible, corruptible, imperfect, decaying matter—was crazy talk to the dominant Neoplatonic perspective that said that spirit was better than and fundamentally opposed to both body and matter. And yet, this is what the Church insisted upon even in the face of a variety of potential explanations of how spirit and matter stayed appropriately separate in the person of Jesus. Instead, we chose, and defended, and fought for Incarnation: the belief that God cares about us enough to become one of us. This is the miracle of Christmas: God took on humanity so that we might take on divinity. This, in and of itself, totally apart from crucifixion, totally apart from resurrection, is a fundamental act of God reconciling humanity and all creation to himself. Of course, crucifixion and resurrection are also part of the equation, but take on greater and deeper meaning for the fact of the Incarnation. They mean more when we acknowledge that it was a truly human Jesus who suffered and died and was raised than if it was a spiritual projection who only seemed to suffer.
One of the principles observed and standardized in the mid to late 20th century Calendar reforms is the notion that seasons tend to begin and end with feasts. As a result, it is often said that the feast of Epiphany concludes the Christmas season. In one sense this is true—in another it is not. On one hand, if you count out the famous “Twelve Days of Christmas” by modern reckoning, they will end on January 6th, the Epiphany. On the other, if you count them out following the standard classical method (counting the day you start with), the twelve day period ends on the 5th. According to the prayer book’s list of feasts (BCP, p. 31), Epiphany is the first entry under the “Epiphany Season” while the Second Sunday after Christmas day closes out Christmas proper.
Whether there is such a thing as the “Epiphany Season” is a point of some debate. In my graduate student days, a famous professor of preaching once paused a lecture to inquire specifically upon this point! The confusion was likely compounded by the fact that she was attending an Episcopal parish at the time (dedicated to the Epiphany no less!): according to the prayer book, there is an “Epiphany season”; according to the Roman Catholic reform of the Calendar, Christmas runs through the Sunday after the Epiphany and everything after that is Ordinary Time designated as “Sundays after Epiphany.” The Revised Common Lectionary attempts to split the difference; it retains the title “Season of Epiphany” yet breaks into an Ordinary Time sequence after the Second Sunday after Epiphany, beginning with the Third Sunday and thus functionally siding with the Roman Catholic removal of the season. With the Episcopal adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, we find ourselves in the odd situation of keeping the season yet losing its character.
The original point of the season is that it was about epiphanies. “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word meaning “manifestations” or “showings-forth.” Actually, many of the medieval calendars retained the Greek name of the feast, Theophany, which means “manifestation of God.” The point here is that the Epiphany season focused on the ways that the divinity of Christ was revealed to the world. The season as whole was about how God was made manifest within Jesus and how he was shown to be both fully human and fully divine. As a result, the Gospel readings of the period cycled through the first miracles in each of the Gospels and some of the earliest teachings of Jesus. These were all understood as differing ways that the Christ made himself known to the world.
So—why does this matter? What’s the point?
As far as I’m concerned, the point has to do with the degree to which we accept an over-simplification of our Calendar. The Roman Catholic reforms and the Revised Common Lectionary following them attempt to make the Church Year more tidy; they place it into neat classifications. According to these schemes, there are two cycle: one celebrates Incarnation, the other celebrates Redemption. The first includes the preparatory season of Advent, then the festal season of Christmas; the second includes the preparatory season of Lent, then the festal season of Easter—everything outside of these is relegated to “Ordinary.” I resist this, though, because it feels just a little bit too tidy! If God’s work of reconciliation is packaged into these two boxes, we lose a variety of shades of meaning through which these two interact with and interpenetrate one another. Retaining an independent Epiphany season recognizes that the earthly ministry of Jesus contained redemptive moments possible through his incarnate nature, that redemption includes more than simply crucifixion and resurrection—as central and important as these rightly are!
There’s one more oddity here that ought to be mentioned… In accordance with the concept that feasts should begin and end liturgical seasons, the Revised Common Lectionary created a feast to conclude the Season of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday. This actually makes quite a bit of sense if the theme of the Epiphany season is manifestation as this is one of the more dramatic manifestations of Jesus’ two natures in the gospels. In hindsight it does seem ironic, though, to create a new feast to underscore the meaning of the season after having functionally gutted it by turning it into Ordinary Time! Furthermore, the prayer book already contains a feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th. The prayer book’s original solution was to offer the feast without the name—the Gospel reading was of the Transfiguration and the collect mentioned it, but the day itself was simply referred to as “The Last Sunday after the Epiphany.” Now, with the official adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, its status and title is unclear.
The season of Lent engages the affection of penitence. During Lent we consider ourselves from two vantage points. The first concerns the human tendency to sin—individually and corporately. Sin is a reality of human existence. The other unavoidable reality of human existence providing the second vantage point is death. Lent opens with Ash Wednesday’s stark acknowledgement of the reality of death. Lent isn’t about being morbid, or punitive, or tearing ourselves down, or whipping ourselves into a lather of self-condemnation. It is, rather, about that word I’ve used twice now: reality. It’s about taking honest stock of who and what we are in the face of eternity and in the face of God. We are limited; we are fallible. In a short life of uncertainty we make choices that lead us deeper into separation and chaos—cutting ourselves off from those who love us and whom we would love. Lent is a deliberate exercise in owning up.
Of all the seasons that were altered in the 20th century reforms, Lent was changed the most. The best way to look at the historic Calendar is that it saw Lent as a graded movement into practices of penitence. That is, it started off easy, then, at designated points, ramped things up as you progressed further in the season. The season began with Septuagesima on the Sunday ten weeks out from Easter creating a three week Pre-Lenten period. Then Ash Wednesday hit with the liturgy of the ashes. The Lenten liturgical round started on the First Sunday of Lent. Then Passiontide moved the bar higher two weeks before Easter. Finally, Palm Sunday kicked off Holy Week. So, there were a series of four grades that moved us deeper into Lent and its exercises. However, this process did not fit within the 20th century emphasis on idealized 4th century baptismal practices. In the move to realign the Lenten experience with the 4th century catechumenal process, the principle of grading was rejected and the Lenten experience was reduced to a period of forty days beginning with Ash Wednesday. The Pre-Lenten season was trimmed away; Passion Sunday was merged with Palm Sunday to make Holy Week even more distinct. The Revised Common Lectionary does not recognize Holy Week as a distinct season—it is the final week of Lent. The prayer book, however, does give Holy Week its own heading equal with Lent so we shall consider it separately though recognizing its intrinsic Lenten character.
The fullness of the intention of the 20th century renovation of Lent is not entirely clear without the catechumenal liturgies contained in the Book of Occasional Services. Within the Pastoral Services a set of liturgies is provided for those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. On the First Sunday in Lent, the candidates for Baptism are enrolled; on the Third Sunday, they are given the Creed; on the Fifth Sunday, they are given the Lord’s Prayer. I have only ever experienced the fullness of a “catechetical Lent” once—and that was in the context of a Roman Catholic college chaplaincy (I sang in their choir). It was a moving experience to share the Lenten journey with those preparing for Baptism, and it did give that Lent a deeper character. On the other hand, I have never seen this process take place within an Episcopal Church! While the prayer book envisions and provides resources for a return to adult baptism and its communal celebration during Lent and Easter, our evangelism seems to have fallen behind our liturgies… The potential here is all too often left on the table. We have trimmed away some of the traditional richness of the season to make room for another facet of the season that, all too often, is lacking.
Lent is a time to get back in touch with holy habits. The prayer book reminds us that all of the weekdays of Lent are “observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial” (BCP, p. 17); Ash Wednesday’s exhortation to the observation of a holy Lent spurs us to both penitence and faith “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP, p. 265). In a work such as this, I would certainly be remiss if I did not offer the reminder that Lent is a perfect time to recommit ourselves to the regular practices of the faith—including the praying of the Office and attendance at Eucharist. These are not great ascetic works—they’re actually fairly easy—but are more useful in the long run than attempts at greater feats of penitence.
On a practical liturgical note, the Lenten liturgies receive a more austere tone. The Gloria in exclesis is not sung; “alleluia” is not said. If a “Hallelujah” does appear in a psalm, the word can simply be omitted. Penitential options are provided for the opening of the Eucharist and as the invitatory antiphons at Morning Prayer. Sundays are always feast days (which is why we speak of Sundays “in” Lent rather than Sundays “of” Lent), but it’s appropriate that the rejoicing be a bit more subdued. (And, of course, on Sundays you may—within moderation—indulge in those things that you have given up for Lent if it is your choice.) The veiling of images, statutes, icons and crosses is common, but different authorities give different periods as to when this should be done. Some suggest that it is done on the First Sunday in Lent; others suggest Passion Sunday. Of course, with the transference of Passion Sunday to Palm Sunday a decision must be made whether Passiontide is retained as a two week period or, following the prayer book, is reduced to Holy Week itself.