Of dates and virgins and other things

A clergy friend recently asked me if I could possibly organise for Christmas to fall on a Sunday every year! I can understand why. The liturgical calendar is always rather crowded around this time, but it becomes even more complicated when Christmas falls on a Saturday or a Monday (as it will in 2017), because that makes two holy days of obligation in a row.

Scholars have come up with several reasons for 25th December being chosen as the date for the celebration of Christ’s birth, but none of these would seem to have any stronger a case than the suggestion of fixing the time for the celebration of Christmas as the last Sunday of the calendar year, say.

But this emphasis on Christmas Day is really not being true to the origins and long traditions of this feast. Since early times Christians celebrated Christmas as a season, not just a day. In the church calendar today Christmas Time is the period from 25th December until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

From the beginning, the readings and prayers for the season expressed the Church’s understanding that Christmas is more than a commemoration of Jesus’ birthday. It is rather the celebration of the beginnings of the mystery of salvation – of Christ’s birth, revelation to the Jewish shepherds and the Gentile magi, baptism by John in the Jordan and first miracle – the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.

Christmas has its own octave during which the feasts of St Stephen, St John and the Holy Innocents are celebrated. These saints are seen as having a particular relation to the Christmas mystery and are traditionally honoured as ‘companions of Christ’.

The Sunday within the Christmas octave is celebrated as the feast of the Holy Family. This year, however, the feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on 30th December as the Sunday within the Christmas octave is 1st January. On that date we celebrate the solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, a feast which highlights the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the incarnation and manifestation of the Saviour.

The Collect for the solemnity is:

O God, who through the fruitful virginity of Blessed Mary

bestowed on the human race the grace of eternal salvation,

grant, we pray, that we may experience the intercession of her,

through whom we were found worthy to receive the author of life,

our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.

Certainly we did ‘receive the author of life’ through Mary, but surely it is not the case that ‘through (Mary) we were found worthy’ to receive salvation!

The prescribed preface for the feast is Preface I of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

For by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit

she conceived your Only Begotten Son,

and without losing the glory of virginity,

brought forth into the world the eternal Light,

Jesus Christ our Lord.

Perhaps others, like me, will feel uncomfortable with this. Is the married state not glorious?



Elizabeth Harrington