Sunday, January 7, 2018

The mystery of the numbers: 'Epiphany Sunday' and other liturgical problems

A celebration of 'plough Sunday'

This Sunday is one of those most affected by the liturgical wreckovations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and not for the better, so I thought I would put up a little note on the various changes it has gone through.

In many places, the feast of the Epiphany is being celebrated today, creating the curious phenomenon of the 'thirteen days of Christmas' this year.

When Our Lord was twelve years old...

It is probably just as well, then that the Gospel of the day, common to the three previous versions of the Sunday (Sunday within the Octave of Epiphany, First Sunday after the Epiphany, and Feast of the Holy Family) is not used, since it emphasizes the importance of numbers in Scripture.

The text in question is St Luke 2:42-52:
And when he was twelve years old, they going up into Jerusalem, according to the custom of the feast, And having fulfilled the days, when they returned, the child Jesus remained in Jerusalem; and his parents knew it not. And thinking that he was in the company, they came a day's journey, and sought him among their kinsfolks and acquaintance. And not finding him, they returned into Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that, after three days, they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his wisdom and his answers. And seeing him, they wondered. And his mother said to him: Son, why hast thou done so to us? behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said to them: How is it that you sought me? did you not know, that I must be about my father's business? And they understood not the word that he spoke unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. And his mother kept all these words in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men.
St Ambrose's commentary on the Gospel, read at Matins in the traditional Office, points out the importance of Our Lord's age, and the number of days Jesus was missing:
We read that when He was twelve years old the Lord began to dispute. The number of His years was the same as the number of the Apostles whom He afterwards sent forth to preach the Faith. He Who, as touching His Manhood, was filled with wisdom and grace from God, was not careless of the parents of the same Manhood, and, after three days, was pleased to be found in the Temple : thereby foreshadowing that, after the three days of His victorious Passion, He That had been reckoned with the dead, would present Himself, living, to our faith, in His heavenly Kingship and Divine Majesty.
Numbers in Scripture

Numbers in Scripture then, translated into the liturgical traditions of the Church, are not random, to be adjusted to suit our convenience; rather they are meant to remind us of the mysteries being celebrated.

The twelve days of Christmas leading up to the great feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the manifestation of the Incarnation to the nations, is not a random number, but encoded message about the spread of the Gospel, of the universality of its message, and the centrality of the Incarnation.

Christ's incarnation was made known at his birth to the Magi, the shepherd's and the angels; and again manifested when he had turned twelve years old, in his teaching in the Temple.

The current fashion of 'Epiphany Sunday' and its companion 'Ascension Thursday Sunday' are, I think, classic examples of inorganic development of the liturgy which needed to be suppressed as quickly as possible.

Feast of the Holy Family

By contrast, the prior feast in the EF calendar, the Feast of the Holy Family, illustrates a more natural type of development of the liturgy.  It had is origins in the seventeenth century in New France (now Canada), but was only introduced into the universal Roman calendar in 1921.

As far as I can discover, never made it into the Benedictine Calendar, though the Monastic Diurnal does provide texts for it in the supplement at the back of the book.

The feast, though, used the same Gospel as the old Sunday within the Octave of Epiphany, and thus simply provided some variety, through its antiphons, within the old Octave, relating closely to the themes of the Epiphany, in much the same way that the various feasts of the Christmas Octave do.

Octave of the Epiphany

The other major twentieth century change impacting on this Sunday was the abolition of most Octaves.

Prior to the 1950s, the Sunday was part of the Octave, reflecting the fact that the Epiphany is traditionally viewed as one of the most important feasts of the year.  Indeed in many places and times, it was seen as more important than Christmas, perhaps reflecting the Eastern tradition where the nativity is celebrated as part of the feast of the Epiphany.

The extension of a feast to eight days goes back to Jewish traditions: eight people were saved in Noah's ark; boys were circumcised on the eighth day after their birth; many purification ceremonies required eight days; and many feasts were celebrated over eight days, foreshadowing Christ's Resurrection on the 'eighth day'.

The association with the number eight isn't entirely lost in the 1962 calendar, since the old Octave day of the Epiphany is still celebrated as the 'Commemoration of the Baptism of Our Lord'.  Still, given that the Epiphany particularly celebrates Christ's baptism among its three main mysteries, it seems particularly unfortunate to downplay the association with the number of eight, given its strong baptismal associations (baptisteries, for example, traditionally had eight sides because of the eight saved from the Flood).

Accordingly, prior to the introduction of the feast (and in the Benedictine Office) the Sunday would have used the psalms and antiphons of the feast of the Epiphany, though with its own readings and related texts.

Most octaves, though, were abolished in the fifties, and this, unfortunately, was one of them.  It is one that should, in my view, be brought back!

Plough Sunday

It is also worth noting that this Sunday was traditionally, at least in England, known as 'Plough Sunday', when blessings of the relevant implements were done in anticipation of the start of planting the crops for the year.

Here in Australia, it is of course, the wrong season for this lovely tradition, by I gather it is making a bit of a come back in Northern climes!


Marco da Vinha said...

I wonder why the reading relative to the miracle at Cana falls outside of the octave of the Epiphany. One would think it would fall within.

Kate Edwards said...

The reading is for the Sunday 'within the Octave'.

Marcus said...

Hi! I received the Benedictine Monastic Diurnal for Christmas, and I really appreciate this blog. Learning my way around the Office would be much harder without it. Thank you, and I hope you keep running this blog for many years to come.

Speaking of numbers and liturgical problems: I live in Norway, with a population of 5 million and around 100 000 Catholics. Until fairly recently, many feasts were being celebrated on the closest Sunday (e.g. All Saints, Sts. Peter and Paul, the Assumption, St. Olaf). But in 2007, our bishop decided that all feasts should be celebrated on their proper days. So the liturgical innovation of moving the days to the closest Sunday has finally been suppressed in Norway. However, the only non-Sunday holy days of obligation are Christmas Day and Ascension Thursday. Interestingly, Ascension Thursday is a public holiday in Norway, where stores and businesses are closed, so that was never a problem!
I have heard talk of increasing the number of holy days of obligation here.

Marco da Vinha said...

Maybe we're looking at different things. In my vetus ordo missal, the Johanine pericope pertaining to Cana is on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (clearly outside the octave of the Epiphany).

Kate Edwards said...

Apologies you are right, I didn't read your post carefully enough, and thought you were referring to the Gospel I was commenting on.

My guess would be that the texts were shuffled around in the eighth century when the Octave was created, as Bede's sermon on Cana was for the first Sunday after Epiphany, not the second (though his monastery followed a southern Italian rather than Roman ordering of the Sunday Gospels).

It was have been felt that a Gospel that made clear the symbolism of the twelve days of Christmas was more important to get in during the Octave?

I suspect however that the main reason relates to the introduction of a penitential dimension to the period by Pope Sergius I, but I will say more on this in a fuller post.

Kate Edwards said...

Thanks Marcus - good to hear of the progress in Norway! And yes, here in Australia we only have tow days of obligation as well, in our case Christmas and the Assumption.

I'm in the process of updating my how to say the Office notes, and I'm posting them here: (the black background of Saints is hard to read for some people, and makes formatting awkward, but too late to change now!).

timothy said...

Hi Marcus! That’s great to hear! Unfortunately our bishops in the USA still have Ascension Thursday Sunday, but it’s good to hear some countries have restored some things. Happy Benedictine office!

timothy said...

In the USA we have HDOs on Xmas, Assumption, Jan 1, and Immaculate Conception (our country’s patroness).