Eve of the Epiphany

As the ACNA calendar introduction notes:

Following ancient Jewish tradition, the celebration of any Sunday begins at sundown on the Saturday that precedes it.  Therefore at Evening Prayer on Saturdays (other than Holy Days), the Collect appointed for the ensuing Sunday is used.

With today being the 5th day of January, that makes this evening the liturgical beginning of The Epiphany.  So when you settle down for Evening Prayer tonight, feel free to start using the Epiphany-specific features, such as: the Opening Sentence (Isaiah 60:30, Nations shall come…).  More definitely, the Collect of the Day this evening will be the Collect for the Epiphany:

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord…

Although the Scripture readings tonight (Jeremiah 4 and Galatians 5) are not chosen to match the feast day, one can observe the bulk of Jeremiah 4’s prophetic description of an invasion of Gentiles as a sort of pre-cursor to the Epiphany.  In that reading, the Gentiles are enemies of God’s people; in the Epiphany, Gentiles start becoming God’s people!

Happy twelfth day of Christmas, and enjoy the Epiphany starting tonight.

The January 1st Feast

Happy feast of the Holy Name and Circumcision of Christ!
(What, did you expect to see “happy new year”?  This is a liturgy blog, not a social calendar!)

For many people, today’s commemoration might seem a bit strange.  Why are celebrating the “holy name” of Jesus?  Is this day like those over-emotive worship songs that repeat endlessly about how precious is it to say the name “Jeezus” over and over again for five minutes?  Is this something more “catholicky”, where we silently meditate on the sacred name of Jesus in a mood of affected piety?

First of all, it’s probably helpful to observe that this feast day might better be termed the Naming of Jesus.  The Gospel lesson at today’s Communion service is Luke 2:15-21, in which Jesus is circumcised and given the name Jesus.  This takes place on the eighth day, according to the Law of Moses, which (in case you haven’t noticed yet) is literally today.  On the 8th day of Christmas, Jesus got circumcised and named.

Second of all, it should be further noted that until 1979, the Anglican tradition called this day the Circumcision of Christ – making that rite the primary feature of the day, and his name/naming secondary.  Unlike the 1979 Prayer Book, though, our Collect still acknowledges the old emphasis alongside the new:

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 for ever. Amen.

This double focus, as you can see, is expressed well in our Collect.  To honor and bear the name of Jesus, and to join with Christ in the New Covenant because he has fulfilled the Old, are both concepts close to the heart of the Christian faith.  But it’s also worth looking back at what used to be…. this is the original Prayer Book Collect for today:

Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Notice, free to be more specific, how this Collect draws us to covenant faithfulness, or obedience.  To worship God “with pure hearts” in the new Collect is an accurate summary, but when you take the time to pray about “being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts”, you get a better picture of what such “pure hearts” actually look like.

All this besides, Jesus’ keeping of the Law is what proves his innocence, his sinlessness, and thus what sets the rest of the Gospel in motion.  If he wasn’t bound to the Law, his obedience to it would not have the significance that it had.

Along those lines, if you deign to pray the Great Litany today, perhaps this is a good opportunity to re-write one phrase back to its original form.  Near the beginning when it says “by your holy nativity and submission to the Law” feel free to pray what this petition originally said: “by your holy nativity and circumcision“.  This may not be the most popular part of the Gospel and Nativity story, but it’s one of the many moments of key importance, hence its place among the great feasts of the church year.

Christmas Day versus Sunday

Imagine if Easter wasn’t always a Sunday, but sometimes a weekday.  What would we do in church on that following Sunday?  Well, given that the resurrection of our Lord is rather a big deal, it would make sense that we would continue to celebrate that holiday on Sunday, perhaps with slightly different lessons so as not to make Sunday a total re-run for those who showed up on Easter Day itself.  That’s how it is with Christmas Day and the First Sunday after Christmas: the Gospel is the same (John 1:1-18) but the other Scripture readings are different.

The Collect is changed, too.  On Christmas Day it’s much more direct to the event:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen

Whereas for the Sunday it’s a bit more general:

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This is consistent with the analogy I began with.  The “primary” Christmas celebration is on the day itself (December 25th), but the Sunday after is a second pass at the holiday so that those who missed Christmas in church will still get the holiday covered, and that those who attend both will have an enriched experience of the season, not simply repeats.

However….  Something that is often overlooked is the fact that the First Sunday after Christmas is expendable.

If that First Sunday is December 26th, 27th, or 28th, then the Major Feast of that particular day is to be observed that Sunday.  That is the traditional way to handle this Sunday and our Calendar for the Christian permits (if sadly doesn’t mandate) this method.

Furthermore, if Christmas Day is itself Sunday, the “First Sunday after Christmas” is to be omitted.  Traditionally, what you do on that Sunday instead is celebrate the major feast of the Circumcision of Christ (now “the Holy Name”) (January 1st).  Our Prayer Book also authorizes use of the Second Sunday after Christmas on that Sunday, but don’t.  Just celebrate the major feast days in our calendar when they land on Sundays like that… most folks in our congregations have sadly lacked such experiences for the majority of their lives!

Anyway, tomorrow is the First Sunday after Christmas.  Enjoy it!

Happy Holidays: the Holy Innocents

Happy Holidays!

This month’s rapid-fire series of major feast days wraps up today with the feast of the holy innocents, that is, the infants and toddlers of Bethlehem slaughtered at the command of King Herod.  If St. John seemed odd to celebrate on the heels of Christmas Day, and St. Stephen almost “seasonally inappropriate”, the story of the Holy Innocents might be even more unpalatable to the sensitive reader.  What could be a worse killjoy to the spirit of Christmas than talking about dead children?

And yet, even more than Saints Stephen and John, this story is very much connected to the Christmas story.  We read in today’s Communion Gospel (Matthew 2:13-18) that these children died on account of Jesus: he was the target, they were the collateral damage.  The Church, therefore, remembers them as the first martyrs for Christ.  They were not martyrs in will – they were too young to make a stand for Christ.  But they were martyrs in deed.  This is in contrast to Stephen, who was a martyr both in will and deed, and to John, who was a martyr in will but not in deed.

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The Gospel writer observes that this event is a fulfillment of a prophecy by Jeremiah, which is the Old Testament reading in the Communion service.  There we find this moment of intense suffering in the midst of a great many promises: God will restore his people and make them prosperous and safe, and fill them with hope and peace.  In our own celebrations of Christmas it is important that we dwell not only on the cheerful sentiments but also on the rougher edges of the story – the hardships that the holy family faced, the brutality with which the powers of this world pursued their as-yet-helpless Savior.

With the shock of the death of those children brought before our attentions this day, we are called to be spotless and pure, to “mortify all that is evil within us” (to slaughter and kill our sins) in order to love and glorify God more perfectly, in anticipation of the life to come.  So still, have a merry Christmastide!

Happy Holidays: Saint John

Happy Holidays!

No, I’m not being politically correct, I’m being liturgically correct.  The end of December is a rapid-fire collection of major holy days: Saint Thomas on the 21st, Christmas on the 25th, St. Stephen yesterday, St. John today, and the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem tomorrow.

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Just as, at the principle Communion service on Christmas Day, we read from the Gospel of John about the Light that was coming into the world, so at today’s Communion service do we see the light of Christ in the reading from John’s epistle – the Church is called to “walk in the light” (1 John 1).  Using the Old Testament story of Moses preparing to see God’s glory, this holiday reminds us that John, as one of the Apostles, saw Jesus face to face, and learned from him for three years as one of his closest friends.  This didn’t make John perfect (for in the Gospel [John 21:9b-25] it’s pointed out that John would still die someday), but it did make him a powerful witness and teacher of the faith.  Today’s Psalm (92) describes the kind of man that John became: a righteous man who bore fruit even to old age.  This holiday reminds us to sit at the feet of St. John and listen to his witness of our Savior, Christ Jesus.

Happy Holidays: Saint Stephen

Happy Holidays!

No, I’m not being politically correct, I’m being liturgically correct.  The end of December is a rapid-fire collection of major holy days: Saint Thomas on the 21st, Christmas on the 25th, St. Stephen today, St. John tomorrow, and the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem on the 28th.

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It feels odd, at first, to celebrate and remember a martyr the day after Christmas.  It’s a sobering reminder, on one hand, that the life Christ calls us into still involves persecution and suffering and even death.  In today’s Gospel (Matthew 23:29-39 at the Communion service), Jesus observes that such righteous suffering has happened before and will continue to happen (as demonstrated with Stephen in the book of the Acts).  Today’s Collect brings some of Stephen’s final visions and words to us as a prayer that we can all share: may we all “behold the glory that shall be revealed” and “learn to love and bless our persecutors.”  Yesterday’s Christmas collect (which would traditionally be repeated today and for the next several days) points out that Christ took on our human nature – he became like us.  Today’s lessons remind us that it’s a mutual exchange: we too, like Christ, are called to a life of potential suffering and death, with the glory of eternal life beyond it.

Looking Ahead: the Christmas Day options

Christmas is just a few days away, as you all are undoubtedly aware.  If you’re a liturgical planner for your congregation, chances are the big decisions have already been made.  If you’ve got family plans, chances are they’ve already been worked out.  In either case, perhaps there are still last-minute details to sift through – isn’t that always the way?

But perhaps there is still some room to consider the rhythm of worship through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  It is my preference, and the practice of this Customary, to start with a “maximalist” approach: assume that every option in the Prayer Book is to be used; individuals can then use that big picture to work out how it can be reduced and enacted in their own contexts.

Service #1: Evening Prayer on December 24th

Following ancient Jewish (as well as Christian liturgical) tradition, the holiday begins on the evening before.  Christmas, therefore, begins with Evening Prayer.  The ACNA lessons that evening are Song of Songs 1 and Luke 22:1-38.  That Old Testament lesson is an interesting choice, for reading the love poems coinciding with Christmas lends an allegorical interpretive aid: as we celebrate the spousal love described in the Song, we also celebrate the divine love of God that led to his incarnation as one of us.  The New Testament reading is just part of the sequential reading through Luke at the end of the year.  The Collect for Christmas Eve is:

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

This will be used at the following Communion service too.

Service #2: Evening Communion (or Vigil) on December 24th

Earlier drafts of our liturgy (I think following the style of the 1979 book) called this option Christmas Day I, but the most recent updates have gotten more specific: this is Christmas Eve with its own Collect and lessons.  The Collect is shared above.  The lessons are Isaiah 9:1-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-14(15-20).  The parentheses refer to an optional lengthening of the reading.  Just as the angels appeared to the shepherds at night, and the birth of Christ seemed to happen overnight, so we get the Bible’s primary nativity narrative in the evening, or vigil, service.  Traditionally this would be a late-night service, after when Evening Prayer would normally be said, making it analogous in function to the Easter Vigil.

Service #3: Sunrise Communion on December 25th

Just as many churches have a sunrise service for Easter, the following collect and lessons are the Prayer Book’s option for a sunrise Christmas service.  This may be an “impossible” idea for families with children, who want to rush to the tree first thing in the morning.  But it’s worth noting that some traditions, particularly across the pond, left the Christmas day gift-opening festivities until after Christmas lunch or dinner, making an early morning service actually preferable.  The lessons for this service are Isiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7, and Luke 2:(1-14)15-20.  The Gospel is the same as the night before, basically for the same reason; but the the Old Testament & Psalm and Epistle lessons are different.  There are so many excellent Old Testament lessons for Christmas, the variety is just worth celebrating.  This Epistle (Titus 3) is found shortly after last night’s epistle (Titus 2), so there’s a sort of sequential logic to that as well.  The Collect for this day is:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Service #4: Morning Prayer

Now the duplications start coming in.  The lessons at Morning Prayer are Isaiah 9:1-8 (the same as the Christmas Eve Communion service, plus a verse) and Revelation 17 (just part of the sequential reading of the month).  It’s more than a little unfortunate that chapter 17 is one of the more unpleasant chapters in Revelation; we’re stuck reading about the Whore of Babylon on Christmas morning.  I suppose you could redeem this unpleasant oversight with the observation that the precious baby Jesus came into the world precisely to deal with such evils.  Still, not a very festive reading… oh well.

Service #5: the Principle Communion

By “principle” I mean “primary.”  This is the one that best matches the historic Prayer Book lectionary, and therefore ought to be the one that a church uses if there’s only one Communion service on Christmas Day.  The lessons are Isaiah 52:7-12, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-12, and John 1:1-18.  You’ll note that the three Communion services (the night before the sunrise, and the principle) make use of sequential psalms: 96, 97, and 98.  These are very festive psalms and lend themselves to celebrations of all sorts.  The non-liturgical Christian today may be surprised at the choice of John 1 for the Christmas Gospel: what about the delightful nativity story of Jesus and his family in Bethlehem?  The answer is theological.  John 1 tells us of Jesus’ true origins; his eternal divine pre-existence with the Father.  Hebrews 1 backs this up, and provides another observation of Christ’s incarnation in human history.  Where the Vigil and the Sunrise services capture the drama of Christmas, this Principle service captures the substance of Christmas.

Service #6: Evening Prayer on December 25th

Christmas Day ends with Evening Prayer, where the lessons are to be Song of Songs 2 and Luke 2:1-14.  This is another instance of duplication – we’ll already have heard this Gospel lesson at the Vigil and/or Sunrise Communion services.  I guess this way, if you don’t make it to any Communion service and only say the Office at home, you’ll at least get the nativity story here.

Applying this to your personal or family context

Ultimately, a Customary cannot tell you how to “take the liturgy” home, exactly.  Nor can I, as a writer, dole out universal advice on what works best for you.  Families with children have one situation, empty-nesters have another.  Some people travel and will be on the road at typical prayer times.  Some people have lots of church services to go to and others will have none.  You’ve got to work with the situation you’ve got.

In the case of my tiny congregation, all we’ve got is the Evening Prayer service on Christmas Eve.  Knowing that we won’t be offering any Communion service to attend, I’ve planned for the New Testament lesson (Luke 22) to be changed to Luke 2:1-20.  Song of Songs 1 will be staying.

As you look at how to handle your personal and/or family devotions, consider what your church will be celebrating together.  Plan your worship at home in conjunction with the corporate liturgy, so that you can have as rich a celebration of Christmas as possible!

And yet, the liturgical context for celebrating Christmas is even bigger: there’s still the following Sunday to consider! But I’ll save that for another entry on another day.  In the meantime, have a blessed final couple days of Advent.

Faith Never Found Wanting

Today would be an Ember Day, but instead, as forewarned, it’s a major feast day – we’re celebrating Saint Thomas the Apostle!  The Collect for this day is:

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Obviously this primarily references St. Thomas’ famed moment of doubt when, like the other Apostles, he refused to believe the resurrection of Christ until he saw with his own eyes.  Jesus’ words at the end of the encounter, “blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed” are implied in the words of this Collect as we pray for a faith never found wanting.

But something that takes this lesson a step further is the fact that the Collect speaks of faith, not in the resurrection, but “in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God.”  It is lifted beyond the Easter context and applied to the fullness of the Gospel.  We are called to believe the words of the Prophets (the Bible), the humanity of our Lord (Christmas), the divinity of our Lord (Epiphany), the passion and death of our Lord (Lent), the resurrection (Easter), the ascension (Ascension), and return of Christ (Advent).  Thus the language of this Collect is such that the feast of Saint Thomas could have been placed into the context of any season of the church year and still “fit”.

Enjoy this feast day, amidst the bustle of Christmas preparations that so easily swamp us at this time of the year.

Advent Ember Days

As we were forewarned last week, the Advent Ember Days are here!  Although in some places the purpose of these days have changed somewhat, their original purpose was to be a time of fasting and prayer for the clergy, those preparing for ordination, and those discerning a call to ordination.  Positioned fairly evenly throughout the year near the changes of the season, these were often the days when ordinations would take place and people would have a quarterly reminder to pray for their clergymen.

Those who are discerning for holy orders, including transitional deacons awaiting the priesthood, typically write an Ember Day letter to their bishop, updating him on their ministerial progress and how the discernment process has been proceeding.

Each seasonal group of Ember Days is a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after an anchor date.  For Advent that date is December 13th (Saint Lucia Day): the first Wednesday after that day starts off the Ember Days – that’s today!  This time around, however, we only get two Ember Days, as the Friday one coincides with a “greater” or “higher ranking” liturgical observance: Saint Thomas’ Day (December 21st).  I haven’t done the math, but I can add that the Advent Ember Days almost always land in the third week of Advent, which has a Collect that is very appropriate for the Ember Days:

Lord Jesus Christ, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise make ready your way, by turning the hearts of the disobedience to the just, that at your second coming to judge the world, we may be found a people acceptable in your sight; who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

This reference to the role of the clergy in preparing God’s people for His return is an excellent set-up for the Ember Days of prayer for the clerical state.

Today and on Saturday, feel free also to use one of the Ember Day Collects in the Daily Office as the Collect of the Day!

Looking Ahead: I doubt you’ll remember…

doubt you’ll remember this ahead of time, but a week from today, December 21st, is the feast of Saint Thomas.  This is a major feast day in the calendar that very easily sneaks up on us.  Here we are, going through Advent, preparing for Christmas which is just three days away, and suddenly everything goes on hold for a day to celebrate the Apostle Thomas.  We’re more used to hearing about him on the heels on Easter, in the famous story of his doubting the resurrection until he too gets to be an eyewitness.

The Roman Catholic Church (and I think also the modern calendar for the Church of England) has dealt with this issue of placement and attention by shuffling Thomas’ feast day to early July, where he only has to compete with the adjacent Independence Day in the USA; a much easier “holiday conflict” to resolve than this.  But in the American Prayer Book tradition, we’ve always kept St. Thomas Day on its historic date.

One way that we can capitalize on this traditional date is by observing that the 21st is usually the Winter Solstice (in the Northern hemisphere) – it’s the shortest day and longest night of the year.  Thomas, likewise, was in the darkness of doubt the longest of the apostles.  All of them doubted the resurrection, and refused to believe until they saw evidence, but Thomas was absent for Jesus’ dinner visit that first Easter evening and had to wait for the following Sunday to see him for himself.  The match-up of darkened faith and darkened daylight gives December 21st a sort of fittingness to the celebration of Saint Thomas.

This even fits into part of the Advent theme, in which we are praying for the return of Christ, striving to “keep watch” – to keep our lamps burning, as it were.  The Collect that starts (and traditionally accompanies throughout) the season exhorts to “put on the armor of light.”  Even with Christmas Day rushing toward us at tilt-neck speed, let us remember to celebrate the Apostle Thomas next week.  His story of wavering-but-confirmed faith, paired with the turn of the natural season from darkness toward light and the liturgical season of bearing light for Christ, can make for a wonderful occasion of spiritual refreshment in the midst of what is for many the busiest time of year.