The Christmas season is nearly over, save for any residual shouting. Of course traces of it linger in the shops that haven’t already shifted their focus to Saint Valentine’s Day; but in the liturgical calendar Christmas began to grind to a halt yesterday with Epiphany, followed by the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which takes place today. That means tomorrow we turn our attention to the season that the Church labels “Ordinary Time.” That’s the stretch during which we get on with the business of everyday life, or so you might think. But that shouldn’t really be the case.
There’s a bit of chant that comes on the feast of Epiphany that hints that there are actually more things to come. The chant dates back to the early centuries of the Church, and while most parishes long ago dropped it, in monasteries like Saint John’s we continue to sing it as if this were the eighth century. It’s an excerpt from The Roman Martyrology, and this Epiphany our confrere Fr. Michael Peterson intoned it beautifully, just before the final blessing and dismissal at Mass.
Without the musical notation it has all the charm of end-of-Mass announcements of bake sales, pancake breakfasts, raffles and the schedule of meetings of the parish council. But sung to the tune of the Easter Exultet, it has a solemnity that stops you in your tracks. So I will quote the words in full, in the event that you’ve never heard or read them before.
“Know this, dear brothers and sisters, that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so by the grace of God’s mercy we announce to you also the joy of his resurrection, who is our savior. On the 1st day of March will fall Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the feast of the most sacred Lenten season. On the 16th day of April you will celebrate with joy Easter Day, the Holy Passover of our Lord Jesus Christ. On the 28th day of May will be the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. On the 4th day of June, the feast of Pentecost. On the 18th day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. On the 3rd day of December, the First Sunday of Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
There you have the outline of the entire Church year. At the very least it suggests that the Church calendar is not some random selection of feasts that haphazardly crop up when we need something to lift our spirits. They are organized to tell a story, in installments, and it all begins on the foundation of Christmas. Without Christmas none of the rest of it makes much sense. With Christmas, however, you have a statement of faith that defines a way of life, and you have to make repeat visits to hear and experience the whole story. In other words, if you’re going to be a Christian, Christmas is not quite enough. But it is the necessary starting point on a pilgrimage to a full life.
In his sermon on Epiphany our confrere Fr. Ian reinforced this sense of continuity with his reference to the star of Bethlehem that guided both shepherds and magi alike. Despite our inclination to think of that star in astronomical terms, its real meaning in the Christian story is allegorical. The star represents light, and for us who are Christians the light of our lives is Christ. Christ is the reference point for the decisions we make in life. Christ is the anchor from whom we choose not to drift. Christ is the foundation on whom we build our home. In sum, Jesus is more than a sweet child in a manger. He’s the one who ultimately calls us to follow him in living noble and loving and sometimes even sacrificial lives. That is the wisdom we adopt for ourselves when we choose to follow Christ our light.
So there you have it. If you hadn’t heard that Ash Wednesday this year falls on March 1st, you know it now. So save that date and all the others on the list. Meanwhile don’t fritter away the next few weeks of Ordinary Time as if they were pointless. In fact, those weeks and days are gifts from the Lord. Let’s use them well as we take a breather on the path to Lent. And if all this is too much “church” for you, then remember, there’s always February 14th, the feast of Saint Valentine.
+On January 2nd and 3rd I participated in the mid-winter workshop for the monks of Saint John’s.
+From January 4th through the 7th I was in San Francisco with our University president, Michael Hemesath, for meetings with several alumni. We did not have to wait very long for our first meeting, as we unexpectedly sat with two alumni on the outbound flight. We met yet another on the return flight.
+On January 7th I attended the celebration in St. Paul of Irene Okner, on her 100th birthday. On her 90th birthday I was honored to give a blessing, and at the time I saluted her for an achievement that few others on the planet accomplish. She had likely achieved immortality, “since statistics show that very few people die after the age of 90.” We are already making plans for her 110th birthday celebration.
+The photos in today’s post all show works from the National Gallery in Washington. The first is “The Virgin and Child with Saint John,” Florence, 15th c., by a follower of Andrea del Verrochio. Second is “The Adoration of the Magi,” by Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, Siena, ca. 1450. Next is the “Adoration of the Magi” by Benvenuto di Giovanni, Siena, ca. 1470. Following that is “The Flight into Egypt,” by Vittore Carpacio, Venice, ca. 1515. At bottom is “The Madonna and Child,” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Florence, ca. 1450.