The Circumcision & Holy Name of Jesus

It’s January 1st, and you know what that means… it’s the eighth day of Christmas, when our Lord Jesus got circumcised!  Happy Feast of the Circumcision, everybody!  Let’s turn to the Bible:

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Luke 2:21

Yeah, I’m not kidding.

The handling of this holy day in the 2019 Prayer Book is actually one of the last-minute changes that have proved a pleasant surprise for me to discover.  Last year, as I described it here, the draft texts suggested that this would be the feast of the Holy Name and Circumcision, but in the actual book the order has been switched to Circumcision first, Holy Name second.  This represents a rare recovery of old tradition that had been largely lost in the course of modernist revision.  The 1979 Prayer Book replaced the Circumcision with the Holy Name.  Even the Roman Catholics replaced the Circumcision, in their case with a solemnity of Mary, because apparently they didn’t have enough Marian feasts already, I guess?

If you’re new to the concept of this holy day, or to the idea of circumcision in general, consider checking out this write-up I made two years ago.  Some of its liturgical references are out of date, or non-applicable to the 2019 Prayer Book, but that’s alright, the information is still useful, and Scripture is still Scripture.

So how do we go about celebrating the circumcision of Christ according to the 2019 book?  Let’s start with the Collect of the Day, which should be read last night (Evening Prayer on December 31st) at at Morning Prayer, the Communion service, and Evening Prayer today.

Almighty God, your blessed Son fulfilled the covenant of circumcision for our sake, and was given the Name that is above every name: Give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, and to worship him with pure hearts according to the New Covenant; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

The daily office, sadly, only give us one special reading for this day, where the historic prayer books always had more.  It’s Luke 2:8-21, which is simply the post-birth narrative of Jesus, leading up to his circumcision and naming in verse 21.  This serves as the Gospel lesson at the Communion service as well.  If you follow this customary’s midday prayer supplemental lectionary then you’ll get back one of the historic readings for this feast day, Genesis 17:9-end, in which Abraham first receives the covenant of circumcision from God.

Turning to the Communion lessons, we’ve got Exodus 34:1-9, Psalm 8, Romans 1:1-7, and Luke 2:15-21.  The Gospel is a shorter version of the Evening Prayer lesson already mentioned.  The reading from Exodus 34 tells of the re-establishment of the covenant with Moses during which God declares one form of his name: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  Psalm 8 responds with a celebration of how majestic God’s Name is, and Romans 1 opens a striking christological statement.  The line about “the obedience of faith” is a key tie-in with the Old Covenant concept of circumcision, and the call to “belong to Jesus Christ” is a pointer to the New Covenant.

Something that is, perhaps, a missed opportunity, is the Epistle lesson appointed for this day in the classic prayer books, before 1962.  It was Romans 4:8-14, which deals more directly with the question of circumcision and its relation to the justification offered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If you have time today, I encourage you to look at the articles and pages linked to in this entry, as they will help you explore and discern the richness of this ‘unlikely’ holiday.

Happy Holidays!

After Christmas Day follows three more major holy days in the church calendar, of varying degrees of likelihood for Christmas-themed celebration: St. Stephen (the 26th), St. John (the 27th), and the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem (the 28th).  This picture from an old children’s book captures their summary quite neatly:

december

It should be noted that the word martyr in Greek means “witness”.  These all witnessed to the gospel of Christ in powerful ways.  Stephen was killed for his faith and preaching.  John was almost killed for the same.  The Holy Innocents were slaughtered when King Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus.  You can read more about these holy days in last year’s posts:

Another fun fact with these days is that because they land on consecutive days, none of them have an “Eve.”  The evening of the 25th is the “second vespers” of Christmas, so all of the 26th is St. Stephen, all of the 27th is St. John, and all of the 28th is Holy Innocents.  Normally, liturgical time begins at sundown – at Evening Prayer – but Christmas Day is significant enough that it keeps its “second” evening to itself, starting a sort of chain reaction of major feast days that don’t get extra time before their morning begins.

Christmas Psalms

If you, like me, are partial to the traditional 30-day cycle of Psalms, this is one of the few days of the year you should feel free to step away from it.  The classical Prayer Books appointed special psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer on Christmas Day: 19, 45, and 85 in the Morning, and in the Evening, 89, 110, and 132.

However, if you want to opt for a shorter version of this, the 60-day psalter in the 2019 Prayer Book does appoint holiday-appropriate psalms for several days in the year, including Christmas Day.  The entries there are 19 or 45 in the Morning, and in the Evening 85 and 110.  As you can see, these are drawn from the original Prayer Book psalms for Christmas Day, just pared down a bit.  Psalm 89 is pretty long, for example.  So take advantage of the freedom afforded in this prayer book and enjoy some traditional Christmas Psalms today, whether it is the longer list of olden times or the shorter list in the new.

And, of course, have a merry Christmas.

The Incarnate Word

Happy Christmas Eve!

Here’s a brief homily for Evening Prayer today, looking primarily at the Psalm appointed (the beginning of 119).  I hope you enjoy the holidays ahead!

Let’s talk about the Christmas Season

Entry #2 of my video series on the basics of the Church Calendar has been on YouTube for a week or two now, and it’s time to share it here.  Yes, most of you who read this already know that Christmas doesn’t start until Christmas Day (or Eve, technically), but I’m putting this out there now in preparation – I know a lot of people tend to get quite busy during the week in which Christmas lands.

Christmas is best known as the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but theologically (as the Collects and Lessons elucidate) the application of the Christmas celebration is far more theologically rich: we celebrate God the Son taking on human nature and thereby sharing his divinity with us!  Thus we celebrate the beginning of our redemption, our salvation, without even having to bring the Cross into the picture.

A resource that may be useful is last year’s write-up observing the differences between Christmas Day and Christmas Sunday: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/2018/12/29/christmas-day-versus-sunday/  Apart from that, here’s the video:

Subject Index:
* 00:10 Introduction to Christmas
* 01:39 Major Themes
* 04:20 Historical features
* 11:30 Walk-through with the 2019 BCP

Happy Birthday, John the Baptist!

This is one of the big feast days of the year, in some country’s traditions the most-celebrated of all Saints’ Days (especially in Scandinavia for some reason).  Rather than give you a single write-up about this feast day in Prayer Book tradition, we’re offering you a variety of angles to explore at your leisure.

#1 – the Natural Connection

https://leorningcniht.wordpress.com/2017/06/24/the-gospel-according-to-astronomy/

#2 – the Christmas Connection

nativity

#3 – the Calm Before the Storm

9 Months to go…

Are you expecting?
Well you should be; as nine months from now the Church will be celebrating the birthday of her Lord.  Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, as some will point out the “real” feast of the incarnation – when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  This holy day is placed, quite logically, nine months before Christmas Day.  If you thought radios and shops playing Christmas music in early November is excessive, how about starting the countdown clock nine months early? 😉

Simply realizing that the Annunciation is celebrated at an appropriate time of the year relative to Christmas can give one a newfound appreciation for this holiday.  But there is more.

There was also an ancient belief that great persons died on the same day they were conceived – there was a sort of symmetry to their lives.  (Perhaps this was more of a poetic assertion than an actual biological belief, I don’t know.)  Whateverso, the Annunciation, March 25th, is often very close to Holy Week and Easter, the sequence of days that commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection.  A couple years ago March 25th was Good Friday itself, perfectly lining up our Lord’s conception with his death.

Liturgically, this means we hold off (or transfer) celebrating the Annunciation to the Monday after the Sunday after Easter Day, rather than celebrating it during Holy Week or Easter Week.  But it is worthwhile to note, in those years, the confluence of liturgical events.

This year, with a later Easter, the Annunciation gets to stand on its own date quite unaffected by the Holy Week schedule and goings-on.  The season of Lent is still around us, of course, still giving an ominous sort of context to this celebration.  Just as Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, so is this holy day overshadowed by the Lenten season, reminding us of the dire destiny of Mary’s newly-conceived son.  This, more than Christmas, is perhaps a better time to sing those songs about how Jesus was born in order to die on the Cross.  Christmas is a festal holiday and season in its own right, we don’t need to drown its joy in reminders of Good Friday; the Annunciation however is much more ripe for that combination of moods.

Also, one last reminder: this is a holy day, a Red Letter Day, a major feast day.  And that means your Lenten fasts and disciplines are suspended for the day.  Go and celebrate the obedience of our Lady and the conception of our Lord!

Last Christmas Hymn: From East to West

Tomorrow is the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, or, the Purification of Mary, celebrating the events of Luke 2:22-40.  As I’ve suggested and explored here before, using these 40 days from Christmas Day until tomorrow is a great way to crawl through the massive collection of Christmas songs in our hymnals.  A good choice for the last of these hymns is From East to West, from shore to shore.

This is an ancient hymn, its text written in Latin by Coelius Sedulius around the year 450.  As often is the case with ancient hymns, its English translation has been set to several different tunes, so I’m not going to include a YouTube link this time; the lyrics will have to suffice.

From East to West is a good choice for the end of this extended run of Christmas hymns because its lyrics touch upon some thematic material that makes it fitting for this point in the calendar:

  1. The appeal for “every heart”, “from East to West, from shore to shore,” to awake and sing about the newborn Christ, is very Epiphany-appropriate.  The song starts immediately with that world-wide invitation to worship Jesus.
  2. The epiphany theme of revealing the divinity of Jesus is also prominent in this song, which identifies him with godly epithets such as “the everlasting King” and “the world’s Creator” and “the Lord most high.”
  3. Mary plays a relatively prominent role in these lyrics, anticipating her prominent role in the feast of the Presentation tomorrow.  Here she is celebrated, “a maiden in her lowly place,” who becomes “the chosen vessel of his grace.”  In the doxology, the final verse of the hymn, Jesus is named as the “Virgin-born.”

In all, this is a fantastic hymn that works for Epiphanytide almost as well as for Christmastide.  I wouldn’t be afraid to pull it out almost any time of year, come to think of it, if I knew I’d be preaching or teaching Christology.  It plays out the dual reality of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, his lowliness and his exaltation, marvelously.

Perhaps you can read or sing it at the Daily Office or other time of devotion today?

From east to west, from shore to shore Let ev’ry heart awake and sing
The holy child whom Mary bore, The Christ, the everlasting king.

Behold, the world’s creator wears The form and fashion of a slave;
Our very flesh our maker shares, His fallen creature, man, to save.

For this how wondrously He wrought!  A maiden, in her lowly place,
Became, in ways beyond all thought, The chosen vessel of His grace.

And while the angels in the sky Sang praise above the silent field,
To shepherds poor the Lord Most High, the one great Shepherd, was revealed.

All glory for this blessed morn To God the Father ever be;
All praise to You, O Virgin-born, And Holy Ghost, to thee.  Amen.

Follow-up: obscure Christmas songs

Near the beginning of the month, I made the wacky suggestion that in order to get through the massive pile of Christmas hymns and carols in most Anglican hymnals, you could sing a different one every day all the way until the feast of the Presentation (February 2nd).  Well, as that date approaches, why don’t we check in on one of the lesser-known Christmas songs lurking in the hymnals.

And by “lesser-known”, I’m referring to common American use.  If you know and love this hymn, don’t be offended; be proud you know it!

From heaven high I come to you was written by Martin Luther in 1535; he may have written the tune also which bears this song’s name, Vom Himmel Hoch.  You can hear the piano part on YouTube (though the text translation will be a little different).

Despite how most arrangements like to shorten things, this hymn could have seven verses.  The first three are in the voice of the angels.

From heaven high I come to you: I bring you tidings good and new;
Good tidings of great joy I Bring; Thereof will I both say and sing:

For you a little child is born Of God’s own chosen maid this morn,
A fair and tender baby bright, To be your joy and your delight.

Lo, he is Christ the Lord indeed, Our God, to guide you in your need;
And he will be your Savior, strong To cleanse you from all sin and wrong.

Like the Gloria in Excelsis, these words proclaim the saving purposes of God in Jesus Christ.  But unlike the Gloria, the hymn then continues with another three verses of application.  The voice of the angels is now the voice of the heart, exhorting one another.

Now let us all right merry be, And with the shepherds go to see
God’s own dear Son within the stall, His gift, bestowed upon us all.

Mark well, my heart; look well, mine eyes; Who is it in the manger lies?
What child is this, so young and fair?  It is my Jesus lieth there.

Ah, dearest Jesus, be my guest; Soft be the bed where thou wilt rest,
A little shrine within my heart, That thou and I may never part.

The pious desire to worship the newborn Savior at his manger leads to an invitation – may Jesus come into our own home.  Let us make a bed, a shrine, within our hearts to care for and cherish the Savior forever.  Evangelical culture often speaks of “inviting Jesus into your heart” and “putting Jesus on the throne of your life.”  This hymn does exactly that, with poetry, grace, solemnity, and joy.

The final verse is a doxology:

Praise God above on his high throne, Who giveth us his only Son.
The angel hosts rejoice in bliss To chant a glad New Year like this.  Amen.

What happened to the 2nd Sunday after Christmas?

As you look ahead, you see that this Sunday will not be “the 2nd Sunday after Christmas”, but the feast of the Epiphany.  Does this mean we miss the 2nd Christmas Sunday this year?

Yes.

This is not unusual; close to half the time that Sunday will be omitted.  In fact, Prayer Books before the 1928 didn’t include a 2nd Sunday at all.  In the event that such a 2nd Sunday occurred, the old way was to celebrate The Circumcision that Sunday.  The rubrics in our 2019 book, last I saw, allow for some flexibility: we’ll be able to choose precisely how to implement these Sunday and Holy Day Collects & Lessons in the latter half of the 12-day Christmas season and beginning of Epiphanytide.  Perhaps another year we can explore than in greater detail, when such a Sunday is available to us.

But this year, hopefully we should all be on the same page: this Sunday, January 6th, is the feast of the Epiphany.  Time to celebrate those magi worshiping Christ!