Comment Life & Soul

The great Holy Days surrender

Pope Francis celebrating Epiphany on January 6 (CNS)

I had hoped that, in the same way that the Christmas truce of 1914 has captured the popular imagination, the bishops might call a Christmas truce and decide to reinstate the celebration of the Epiphany on January 6. By locating it on the nearest Sunday, Epiphany rather easily acquires the atmosphere of a Sunday evening before the Monday morning feeling: the feast to mark the end of the Christmas shutdown. Schools and offices return to work with the sense that Christmas is over, more than ever encouraging the secularist pattern of trashing Advent by celebrating Christmas throughout it, and then diluting Christmastide by limiting it to the span of a secular holiday period which must also fit in Epiphany, so that we get our religion over and get back to normal. Ironically, the only time children in Catholic schools will have sung a Christmas carol will be Advent. Far from baptising culture, we appear to be abetting it in destroying the pattern of the Christian year.

At Christmas, we celebrate the work of salvation breaking into our time, a fullness of time that originates not with some earthly convenience, but in God’s design. At Epiphany, we celebrate the manifestation of God’s Incarnation revealed by a star, a disruption in the celestial ordering of things precisely to make known that there is a new order in the cosmos. By moving a feast day as ancient as the Epiphany, which since the fourth century was kept on January 6, to the nearest convenient Sunday, we run the risk of contradicting the very message we claim to proclaim: that history belongs to God. We proclaim instead a history that is happy to cede to human patterns of working, getting and spending. Religion therefore becomes an ever more private virtue as we collaborate in our own secularisation and the fragmentation of our catholicity.

Could someone please tell me what possible need there was for this change and what positive effect it has had that would justify its continuation? To me, it feels more literally an anachronism as each year passes.

It is particularly unfortunate to celebrate the Epiphany in a way which makes it the end of something, when in fact it is the start of something new. This point was well made by Benedict XVI in his luminous homilies for his first World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, which I have been re-reading with a certain nostalgia. Though it took place in July, the theme was “We have come to worship Him”, inspired by the presence of the Magi reliquary in Cologne cathedral. It is at the point where the Magi fall down to worship the Child, when their external pilgrimage ends and they appear to have reached their goal, that what Benedict calls an “inner pilgrimage” begins, a new journey which changes the direction of their whole lives. They have come seeking a king and naturally begin by looking for him in a palace. But when they kneel before a child, born to poor people, and recognise him as the promised King, a new, spiritual journey begins with this realisation that “God is not as we usually imagine him to be”. Their outward gestures of worship had to be assimilated internally.

In the gesture of kneeling before the child they show an authentic religious spirit, the credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand) and also the truth of the maxim that emotions follow behaviour. (What a pity we have neglected this sense when it comes to liturgical gesture, in particular in the manner of receiving Holy Communion.)

What characterises this journey, then, is the progressive surrender of their own ideas about God, which also implies a change in the manner in which they must think about the nature of man, and about the power and justice they are seeking for themselves and their world. As they allow themselves to confront the fact that God is different from their expectations, so they themselves must enter into this difference by learning his ways. Thus, they “return to their own country by a different way”.

Benedict summarises this by saying: “God contrasts the noisy and ostentatious power of this world with the defenceless power of love, which succumbs to death on the Cross and dies ever anew throughout history; yet it is this same love which constitutes the new divine intervention that opposes injustice and ushers in the Kingdom of God.”