The liturgy of New Year’s Day, in both the Mass and the Divine Office, is one of the richest and most complex of the Church’s year, joining together elements of several different traditions. It is historically known as the feast of the Circumcision; the Gospel, St. Luke 2, 21, recounts that the infant Jesus, in fulfillment of the ancient covenant given to Abraham, was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth. Likewise, following the custom of the Jewish people, He was named on the same day, with the holy name given to Him by the Angel before He was conceived. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, following the tradition of the Fathers, refers to the Circumcision as the first shedding of Christ’s blood for our salvation: “Worthily indeed is He called ‘Savior’ when He is circumcised, this Child who was born unto us, because already from this moment He began to work our salvation, pouring forth that immaculate blood for us.” This Gospel is repeated on the feast of the Holy Name, the Sunday after the Circumcision, and the homily quoted above is read at Matins of that day.
The Circumcision of Christ, depicted in a stained-glass window by A.W.N. Pugin, Bolton Priory, 1853. Photograph by Br. Lawrence Lew, O.P.
The first of January is, of course, the octave day of Christmas, and the circumcision and naming of Christ are set by the Mass as the consummation of the feast of His Nativity. The chant propers are repeated from the third Mass of Christmas Day, with the exception of a special Alleluja; the epistle, however, is repeated from the first Mass. In many uses of the Roman Rite, such as those of Sarum and of the Dominican Order, the three prayers of the Mass are an ancient set which refers explicitly to the octave of the Nativity. In the Missal of the St. Pius V, however, the prayers of the Mass refer neither to the Circumcision, nor to the octave of Christmas. It was formerly the custom of the church of Rome to celebrate the last day of the Christmas octave as a feast of the Virgin Mary, much as the Byzantine Rite keeps December 26th as the "Synaxis of the Most Holy Mother of God". The Collect and Post-communion of the Roman Mass of the Circumcision are a reminder of this ancient custom, both referring to the Virgin Mary. The office of the Circumcision, one of the most beautiful of the entire year, brings together aspects of all three parts of the day’s feast.
The medieval liturgist Sicard of Cremona, writing in about 1200 A.D., explains the tradition of the two observances which were later united into a single feast:
On Christmas Day, two feasts come together,… (one) of the Mother and (one) of the Son; but because of the festival of the Son, we cannot fully celebrate the Mother. We have therefore reserved Her solemnity to the eighth day, signifying thereby that if we shall serve Christ in this life, we shall rejoice in the glorification of the Church, which Mary prefigures, on the eighth day, that is, in the life to come; and therefore the office (of Matins and Lauds) belongs in large part to the Virgin as she gives birth; therefore also two Masses are celebrated, the first of the Mother, Vultum tuum (now the votive Mass of the Virgin in the Christmas season), and another of the Son, Puer natus est nobis; but if anyone wishes to omit one of them, let him not omit the one that regards the Virgin, so that he may say the prayer Deus, qui salutis æternæ.There is, however, a fourth element to the day’s observance, which was formerly of the greatest importance. In the ancient Roman world, as in our own, New Year’s was generally celebrated with a great deal of raucous behavior, dancing and drinking of a sort not in keeping with Christian morals. In many places, therefore the liturgy of the day was celebrated as a day of fasting and penance, against the excesses of the pagan world. A few traces of this survive in various places; for example, the Mass of the Circumcision repeats the epistle of the first Mass of Christmas because of the words “…instructing us that, denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live soberly and justly, and godly in this world.”
The station of New Year’s Day was originally assigned to the Pantheon, the “temple of all the gods”, which was dedicated as a church in honor of the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs in the year 609 by Pope Boniface IV. The choice was clearly made so that the commemoration of the Mother of God could be celebrated in a place which also symbolizes the victory of the Christian faith and the one God over all of the many gods of the pagan world.
Mass celebrated in the Pantheon on May 13, 2009, the 1400th anniversary of the building's dedication as a church. Photo courtesy of Orbis Catholicus.
The station for this day was later transferred to another Marian church, Saint Mary’s in Trastevere, the foreigners’ quarter of ancient Rome. We do not know why or when the change was made, but we do know why this particular church was chosen. Its site was a place of Christian worship at least a century before Mary Major was built, possibly more, although there is no reason to believe it was originally dedicated to the Virgin. The pagan historian Cassius Dio records that in the year 38 B.C., a fountain of oil sprang from the ground in Trastevere, near a tavern frequented by retired solders, (called a 'taberna meritoria' in Latin). This event is understood by Saint Jerome, in his continuation of the Chronicle of Eusebius, as a prophecy of the grace of Christ flowing forth to all of the nations; later on, the miraculous flow of oil was believed to have happened on the night of Christ’s birth. In the late thirteenth century, the Roman artist Pietro Cavallini added to the apse of Santa Maria in Trastevere a beautiful series of mosaics of the life of the Virgin; the third of these shows the birth of Christ, and the fountain of oil flowing forth from the taberna meritoria. (pictured right) The place believed to be the site of the fountain is now within the church, very close to the main altar; and the motto of the church itself and of its chapter is still to this day “Fons olei.”
There are no stations assigned to the days between the Circumcision and Epiphany. The second, third and fourth of January were traditionally kept as the octave days of St. Stephen, Saint John and the Holy Innocents respectively, and octave days very rarely have their own station. The feast of the Holy Name was only added to the universal Calendar in 1721, although the devotion is, of course, much older; it was not assigned to its current place, the Sunday after the Circumcision, until the reign of Pope Saint Pius X.
The very ancient vigil of the Epiphany on the fifth of January also does not have a station. It is likely, however, that just as the vigil of Christmas was kept in the same church as the first Mass of Christmas, so the vigil of Epiphany was kept in the same church as the feast. This station is assigned to the basilica of St. Peter, for the same reason that the third Mass of Christmas was originally celebrated there as well; a very large church was necessary to accommodate the large congregation on one of the greatest solemnities of the year.
Interior view of Saint Peter's Basilica, by the workshop of Raphael, ca. 1520
One of the most beautiful antiphons of the office of the Epiphany, sung at the Magnificat of Second Vespers, reads: “We celebrate a holy day adorned with three miracles; today a star led the Wise Men to the manger; today water became wine at the wedding feast; today in the Jordan, Christ did will to be baptized by John that he might save us.” All three of these aspects of the feast are mentioned daily in the office of the Epiphany and its octave; the Mass, however, has always been principally focused on the coming of the Magi. In the Byzantine rite, on the other hand, the Gospel of the Magi is read on Christmas, and the Epiphany is more markedly the feast of the Lord’s Baptism. The Latin church has reserved its principal commemoration of the Lord’s Baptism to the octave day of the Epiphany; despite the great antiquity of this custom, it does not have a stational observance.
As mentioned above, the Roman Rite has preserved a few traces of the early Christian reaction to the pagan celebration of the New Year; in the traditional Ambrosian Rite, this aspect of the day is far more pronounced. At Vespers, psalm 95 is sung with the antiphon “All the gods of the nations are demons; but our God made the heavens”, and psalm 96 with the antiphon “Let all those who worship the idols be confounded, and those who glory in their statues.” The first prayer of Vespers and of the Mass reads, “Almighty and everlasting God, who commandest that those who share in thy table abstain from the banquets of the devil, grant, we ask, to thy people, that, casting away the taste of death-bearing profanity, we may come with pure minds to the feast of eternal salvation.” All seven of the antiphons of Matins, and most of those of Lauds, refer to the rejection of idol worship. In the Ambrosian rite, there are two readings before the Gospel; on the Circumcision, the first of these is the opening of the “letter of Jeremiah”, (Baruch 6, 1-6 in the Vulgate), in which the prophet exhorts the people not to bow before the idols of the Babylonians. The great antiquity of this tradition is shown by the fact that this reading is preserved in the Ambrosian Missal in the text of the Old Latin version, rather than that of the Vulgate.
The Basilica of Sant'Eustorgio in Milan. The previous church on this site was destroyed in 1164, and the relics of the Three Kings removed to the Cathedral of Cologne by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.