Pastor Iuventus

Stop playing liturgical roulette

It was December 27 and twice in the course of two different programmes on the BBC I heard commentators musing on what this ‘‘limbo time between Christmas and New Year’’ is called. Listeners were invited to tweet their suggestions. Not being someone who tweets myself, I was reduced to squawking with frustration at the radio: ‘‘It’s called Christmas!’’ Our culture is becoming deracinated. Surely even BBC types have heard of the popular song The Twelve Days of Christmas?

The theory that this was originally a kind of recusant mnemonic for teaching children their catechism seems to be gaining ground. It’s a charming idea, but I am not convinced. First, 12 days of Christmas is not the Catholic Church’s liturgical season, whereas in the Anglican Church it is. If it were a secret Catholic code, how would it have gained such universal popularity? Moreover, in order to make it work as a mnemonic you have to come up with some pretty tenuous links.

For example: ‘‘Nine ladies dancing’’ is said to represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. Catholics speak of 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit, whereas an Evangelical would think of the nine listed in Galatians 5. Why would one need to remember that there were 11 faithful Apostles when the whole point is that there are supposed to be 12, and 11 was a temporary aberration? No one learns that a football team contains 10 men if one is sent off. Some correspondence between the image and the thing to be remembered would be of use. If three French hens represent the three theological virtues, why wouldn’t four calling birds equally represent the four cardinal virtues or the four horsemen of the apocalypse?

This incoherence reaches its zenith with the idea that the image of ‘‘eight maids a milking’’ helps one recall the eight Beatitudes. It’s also such a mixture of the technical and the blindingly obvious. The neophyte needs to be reminded that there is an Old and a New Testament but is expected to know that there are five books in the Pentateuch.

So I remain unconvinced. I think it is much more likely to have been some kind of child’s game than a covert catechism, but I speak under correction.

Perhaps someone will be able to provide a useful mnemonic for remembering when to celebrate feast days such as Epiphany, which one could hitherto easily recall because they had shaped Christian consciousness for centuries but now vary according to local convenience. How about: ‘‘If you’re in Italy, Sunday’s Epiphany, but in Vatican City State it’s the time-honoured date’’? Or: ‘‘On the ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to me the Bishops’ Conference new Epiphany’’? I am also wondering what to call the limbo or suspension of time which will give us Epiphany on January 3, 2016 and Epiphany on January 8, 2017. One is tempted to echo the words of Herod to the Magi in a letter to the Bishops’ Conference: ‘‘And when you have found Him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage…’’

I find it deeply dispiriting that as our culture becomes increasingly set adrift from the Christian calendar we are playing liturgical roulette with the date of so ancient a Christian feast as Epiphany for motives of convenience. Our God revealing himself as the light of the nations is now to be a moveable feast according to when it best suits our holiday patterns in any particular nation.

A secular Christmas is over by Boxing Day. The liturgical calendar gave us an octave of Christmas and then Epiphany stood in its own light to re-energise our holy wonder of the child of Bethlehem.

It no longer stands in its own right. It depends on where the Sundays after Christmas fall. To celebrate Epiphany on January 3 makes it mark the end of something. It will again coincide with the return to work for many people and the secular conviction that we are ‘‘back to normal’’. It is illogical to have a roving date for Epiphany, the older feast, but not Christmas Day. It automatically signals a diminishment of the Epiphany. It gives momentum to the cultural drift which preserves Christmas for its mood music, but inverts any claim that Christian feasts exist to allow the sacred to have mastery over our time, in favour of the claims of our own convenience.