Friday, January 12, 2018

When Does the Christmas Season End?

A friend has just brought to my attention an article by Jennifer Miller on CatholicCulture.org, which discusses the question of when the Christmas season officially ends; I have also seen a few similar discussions on social media. With all due respect to the author, this article incorrectly asserts that in the Extraordinary Form, the Christmas season officially ends with the Baptism of the Lord on January 13th. Liturgically, the Christmas season ends on the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and Our Lady’s Purification, on February 2nd.

Prior to the 1960 revision of the rubrics, the liturgical books of the Roman Rite did not refer to either Christmas or Epiphany as “tempora – seasons”, and indeed, neither the Missal nor the Breviary had a rubric on liturgical seasons per se. In the 1960 rubrics, within the newly-created section on the seasons of the year (title VIII), “the season of the Nativity” (tempus natalicium) is subdivided into two parts, “the season of Christmas” (tempus Nativitatis) which runs from First Vespers of Christmas to None of January 5th, and “the season of the Epiphany” (tempus Epiphaniae), which runs from First Vespers of the Epiphany to January 13th. In the body of the Missal, the Sundays after Epiphany are given a new header, “the time per annum before Septuagesima”, the forerunner of the widely and rightly detested term “ordinary time.”

Folio 11v of the Gellone Sacramentary, a Gelasian type sacramentary dated 780-800. At the top are several Office prayers for the Epiphany, towards the bottom, the prayer of the First Sunday after Epiphany, the same (Vota quaesumus) found in the Missal of St Pius V. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048)
The designation of the second part as the “season” of Epiphany serves to explain the position of the Baptism of the Lord on January 13th, after the unjustifiable suppression of the octave of Epiphany, which is older than that of Christmas, in 1955. Apart from that, none of this new terminology describes the liturgical texts of the season particularly well.

In the Temporal cycle, there are a maximum of six Sundays after Epiphany. The Gospels of these Sundays, the arrangement of which is extremely ancient, are as follows.

First Sunday, within the octave of Epiphany – Luke 2, 42-52, the finding of Christ in the Temple. (The feast of the Holy Family was permanently fixed to this Sunday in 1921, but its Gospel is the same; the monastic orders retained the older celebration of the Sunday.)
Second Sunday – John 2, 1-11, the wedding at Cana.
Third Sunday – Matthew 8, 1-13, the healing of a leper and of the centurion’s servant.
Fourth Sunday – Matthew 8, 23-27, the calming of the storm on the sea.
Fifth Sunday – Matthew 13, 24-30, the parable of the wheat and the tares.
Sixth Sunday – Matthew 13, 31-35, the parables of the mustard seed and of the leaven.

Of these six Gospels, the first three always occur before the Purification, the fourth can occur either before or after it, and the fifth and sixth always occur after it. The placement of the Finding in the Temple, the only recorded episode of Our Lord’s life between His infancy and the beginning of His public ministry, is obvious. From the most ancient times, the writings of the Fathers attest that the Wedding at Cana was celebrated as part of the Epiphany, a tradition to which the historical Office of the Epiphany refers several times. (In the post-Conciliar three-year lectionary, this Gospel is now read on this Sunday only in year C; the modern Ambrosian lectionary, which corrects some of the grosser defects of the reformed Roman one, reads it in all three years.) The two miracles read on the Fourth Sunday are the first ones specifically recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew.

The Wedding at Cana, from the Très belles Heures de Notre-Dame, a work of various masters, ca. 1375-1425. (This part of the manuscript is attributed to Pol de Limbourg, 1385?-1416). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, NAL 3093
These Gospels, therefore, are all very much an extension of the theme of Epiphany, which means “manifestation.” After celebrating the private manifestations of the Savior in His infancy, the Church commemorates the sole recorded episode of His youth, His public manifestation at His Baptism, and His earliest miracles in both the Synoptic and Johannine traditions. However, the two Gospels which can only occur after the Purification break away from this Epiphany theme, being solely parables, as are those of Septuagesima and Sexagesima.

It is true that Septuagesima can arrive before the Purification; its earliest possible date (which has not occurred since 1818, and will not occur again until 2285) is January 18th. It is also true that when this happens, the series of Gospels after Epiphany is interrupted; this year, for example, Septuagesima falls on January 28th, and therefore, the Gospels of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Sundays after Epiphany will be read at the end of the liturgical year. These facts are, however, irrelevant to the original arrangement of the season after Epiphany, in which the first four Gospels continue the theme of that feast, an arrangement which predates the institution of Septuagesima. All of which is to say, the underlying theme of the Christmas season, the revelation of God’s salvation in the Incarnation of His Son, breaks off liturgically with the Purification, and not before.

We should also take note here of a much more significant fact about the arrangement of the liturgical year. The earliest possible date for Ash Wednesday is February 4th; there will therefore always be an interval of at least one day between the closure of the Christmas cycle on February 2nd, and the beginning of Lent.

In the Sanctoral cycle, the month of January is a fairly busy one, and has been for a long time; the feasts of the Saints that occur within it have no bearing on the Christmas season. The article cited above correctly notes that the daily commemoration of the Virgin Mary after Compline is traditionally the same from Christmas to the Purification, and changes on February 3rd. It also states that this is “(t)he only remaining liturgical hint of the Christmas Cycle … within the Liturgy of the Hours.” (Technically, this arrangement is optional in the new Office, and might more accurately be described as the memory of a hint.) However, this is not true of the traditional rite. Between Christmas and the Purification, the Saturday Office and Little Office of the Virgin use the Collect and several antiphons from the feast of the Circumcision. Much more importantly, the Votive Mass of the Virgin for the whole of this period uses the same Collect, as well as the Epistle and Gospel from the Dawn Mass of Christmas; it should be remembered that for a very long time, all major churches had at least one Votive Mass of the Virgin every day.

In practical terms, none of this has much effect on the liturgy, and the discussion on social media seems to focus mostly on the appropriate time for taking down Christmas trees and crèches, whether in church or at home. Both of these are, of course, noble customs which should always be encouraged and maintained, but neither of them has any formal liturgical place. In regards to Christmas trees, it would be perfectly harmonious with the Catholic tradition to leave them up until February 2nd, without ever forgetting that very dry conifers can burn with an incredibly dangerous speed and intensity. In regards to crèches, I have observed a custom in a number of European churches that seems to me very sensible, and a good way to present and celebrate the events of Christ’s life more vividly through the liturgy. Having “arrived” at the adulthood of Christ in the liturgical year, so to speak, with the feast of His Baptism, the manger scene is taken down. A statue of the Infant Jesus continues to be displayed prominently in the church, and only removed after the celebration of His Presentation in the Temple.

The high altar of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, the FSSP parish in Rome, on Christmas night. The Baby Jesus statue seen in the middle remains on the high altar until the evening of February 2nd.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: