It might seem strange to be writing about Christmas in the January issue. Surely by now we’ve all taken down our trees and are glad to see the back of all those gaudy decorations? Actually, it’s appropriate to write about Christmas now because most of Christmas is in January: the first seven days, of course, are in December, but the last day of Christmastide is not until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which in 2022 is on 9 January. Certainly the celebration of Christmas does not last as long as that of Easter, which goes on for weeks, right up to Pentecost, but after all, the Incarnation is a fairly important part of Christianity, and it certainly requires a substantial period of reflection such as the Church offers us in these two-and-a-bit weeks.
The first few days of Christmas are occupied by long-established feast days: the “feast of Stephen” in fact is trumped this year by the Holy Family, which is a more obviously Christmas-oriented celebration, but then we shall have Saint John the Apostle, the Holy Innocents and – at least in England – St Thomas Becket. For readings proper to Christmastide, we must wait until Thursday 30th, when we hear the end of the account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple, the account of the Holy Family’s encounter with the prophetess Anna. The following day reprises the beginning of St John’s Gospel, about which I wrote last month.
On the first Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the new year we read from later parts of the same chapter, dealing with John the Baptist’s testimony to Christ and the call of the first Apostles. This all points forwards to the end of the Christmas season and the Baptism of the Lord – performed by the Baptist, in the presence of at least some of those who were to become Apostles. The theme also encompasses the Epiphany, because the emphasis is all on the revelation of Christ: not enough that the Saviour has come into the world; he must be seen by the world, both his own people of Israel and all the nations, represented of course by the wise men. I know I don’t need to tell you that the wise men weren’t kings, or indeed that there were necessarily three of them (though there may have been). What matters for Saint Matthew, the only evangelist to relate this account, is the fulfilment of the promise of the prophets that the true King of Israel would receive the homage and adoration of the wise, the wealthy and the powerful of all the nations. As the responsorial psalm has it: “All nations shall fall prostrate before you, O Lord.” This is re-emphasised the following day, when we read again from St Matthew about how the ministry of Christ begins with his settling in Capernaum, which was on the edge of Gentile regions. For the evangelists, this fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah: “Galilee of the Nations! The people that lived in darkness [ie the pagans] has seen a great light”.
On the penultimate day of Christmastide, the choice of Gospel is perhaps a little puzzling: it is St Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000. I wonder whether the clue to how to read this as a Christmas reading is given by the first reading which – as throughout this season – comes from the First Letter of St John. The Apostle urges us: “Let us love one another, since love comes from God…” The incarnation of the Word is the perfect revelation of God’s love, the extravagance of which is shown in the feeding miracle, and which demands an equally extravagant response.
When we finally come to the last day of Christmas, the Feast of the Baptism provides a bridge into Ordinary Time: this is “year C” of the three-yearly cycle, so we shall be reading St Luke’s Gospel from now on, and we begin with his account of Jesus’s baptism. One thing to notice is that there are some verses missing – we read Luke 3:15-16,21-22. I urge you always to notice these things and look up the missing verses, and here you will see that we omit St Luke’s “flash-forward” to the arrest of the Baptist. He also carefully avoids saying who baptised Jesus: “…while Jesus after his own baptism was at prayer”. This isn’t a cover-up, but a clear focus on Jesus – the prayerful Jesus, notice – who now emerges from the dramatic events surrounding his birth and infancy to begin telling for himself the story of God’s love for the world.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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