January seasonal notes
Epiphany and Ordinary Time
Notes, important dates, and other material for January.
Notes for Cycle A
MATTHEW'S YEAR starts off sounding a little like a rerun of Luke: The theme of rich and poor, powerful and lowly, is strongly emphasized. Gospel is gospel, after all, and the primary message of the kingdom is paradox and reversal. All of scripture shows this bias. It’s built into the story that God prefers Israel to the mighty nations and Israel’s poor to her elite. When it comes to worldly values, God’s choice is always to upend them in favor of something better: divine justice.
But while Luke confronts the world’s injustice with God’s cosmic justice head-on in detailed stories of a new world order, Matthew insists on the metaphors of kingship and kingdom, and prefers the method of direct discourse to long parables. Matthew’s gospel has been called the “handbook of the church,” and it serves as both a primer for church leaders as well as a lectionary and teaching tool for the faithful at large. We can almost see the catechetical objectives behind each section and glimpse the rabbi behind the writing. So take your seats, class, and let the lessons begin!
WE ARE NOW MOVING through what was once known as a season of Epiphany in the church. From the birth of Jesus through the occasion of Jesus’ first miracle, the church identified four great manifestations of God: the Nativity of Jesus, the revelation to the nations we now call Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, and the miracle at Cana. That last epiphany has now been relegated to the Second Sunday of the Year in Cycle C only. The other three events have since become separate occasions rarely seen in theological dialogue with each other, which is a loss. In western culture, Christmas has such a lock on the imagination so as to eclipse all other notions of celebration. Yet we preachers can highlight the ongoing revelation of God to which these feasts point. Chances are there’ll never be a shopping season for the Baptism of the Lord, or more than one carol, We Three Kings, to sing at Epiphany. God dwells with us just the same, with or without the fanfare.
Notes for Cycle B
THIS PART OF THE YEAR can feel like the breather between Christmas and Lent for the busy liturgist. But it’s more than liturgical filler. Epiphany was probably the original observance of what we now know as Christmas. The feast of Christ’s birth was intended to supplant the solstice, celebrated on January 6 in the East. As the celebration of the birth found a home in December, the feast of Epiphany shifted its focus to the Magi’s visit, the Lord’s Baptism, or the miracle at Cana in local observances. All of these are epiphanies of one sort or another, whether the revelation is Incarnation, the fulfillment of the Bethlehem prophecy, the sonship of Christ, or the miraculous power of Jesus. The East still honors the Lord’s Baptism on this day. In the West, we have separated these feasts (Cana shows up in Cycle C on the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time). It would be fair to say that, through these feasts, our celebration of Christmas continues.
WE END the Octave of Christmas and begin the secular new year with a blessing, presided over by the Mother of the church, who is also the Mother of God. Epiphany underscores the fine veil that separates divine realities from human ones. At any moment, all heaven might break loose in our world! Certainly there’s a precedent for it, as the magi come to see. In the story of Samuel, we learn how to listen to the divine voice speaking in our lives. That whisper in the nighttime could be the start of our vocation. Most disciples of Jesus, however, found their calling in the daylight (though Nicodemus preferred to come around after dark).
What becomes clear through these stories is that it is not enough to hear God speak—we also have to get up and follow. For the disciples, the road will wind through miraculous successes and stunning obstacles, leading up to the spectacular failure in Jerusalem. But that’s a story for another season. For the moment, we’re back in Ordinary Time.
Notes for Cycle C
THE NEXT BIG SEASON is eight weeks away; let’s take our time with this interlude of “ordinariness.” In proper kingdom fashion, what counts for ordinary in the life of faith can be quite amazing. This is the essence of Epiphany: that the God who’s always present is made plain to those who seek. But we have to be willing to suspend our expectations and to accept that God may not appear to our eyes in the glamour of the palace and its mighty seats of power.
In the same way, the One we are looking for is not necessarily the charismatic personality prophesying at the river, or the bridegroom on center stage. The Holy One may show up in our midst as a guest at the end of the party when all the wine is gone and not much is left to be anticipated. Perhaps God will speak with the voice of someone close at hand and familiar, the neighbor or family member we’ve always known. It is the nature of Epiphany to come wrapped in surprises!
IT'S A NEW CALENDAR YEAR; let’s begin at the beginning. That’s what the lectionary seems to do in these early weeks of January. We start off with a major revelation—to use the church’s language, an Epiphany of God’s presence and purpose among us. Even from the first moment, we can see this revelation is a mixed bag of joy and foreboding. Foreign nations are delighted by the news, while God’s own representatives seem threatened by it. Hang onto that thought—it will become useful at the end of the month.
We move on from the great Epiphany to the ordinariness of time, which will never be quite so ordinary again because God has pitched a tent with us. Jesus starts his ministry in John’s gospel with a fantastic miracle of abundant wine, and in Luke’s version with a proclamation of abundance that turns out to have a hook in it. Maybe only foreigners will have reason to rejoice, after all, because historically they have proven more receptive to God’s Word than God’s own people. We who claim the holy identity must also live out the holy purpose.
Announcement of the dates of the Paschal Festival
In the days before the widespread availability of calendars, Epiphany was the time to announce the dates of the Lenten, Easter, and other holy days. Today anyone can look up the dates of Easter and other feasts, but the tradition of proclaiming the dates on Epiphany emphasizes the preeminence of the Paschal Mystery in the church year and in Christian life and helps people to be mindful of the days to come. You can preserve this practice by reprinting the traditional prayer of proclamation in the bulletin or a worship aid.
Here is the traditional prayer of proclamation:
Dear brothers and sisters, the glory of the Lord has shone upon us, and shall ever be manifest among us, until the day of his return. Through the rhythms of times and seasons let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation. Let us recall the year’s culmination, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: his Last Supper, his Crucifixion, his burial, and his rising celebrated between the evening of the 20th of March and the evening of the 23rd of March.
Each Easter—as on each Sunday—the holy church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has forever conquered sin and death. From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, will occur on the 6th of February. The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the 1st of May. Pentecost, the joyful conclusion of the season of Easter, will be celebrated on the 11th of May. Likewise the pilgrim church proclaims the passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy Mother of God, in the feasts of the apostles and saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed.
To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise, for ever and ever. Amen.
World Day of Prayer for Peace The participants of the 2002 ecumenical gathering for peace at Assisi, hosted by Pope John Paul II, committed themselves to: proclaiming that violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion; educating people to mutual respect and esteem; fostering the culture of dialogue; defending the right of everyone to live a decent life; forgiving one another for past and present errors and prejudices; taking the side of the poor and the helpless; taking up the cry of those who refuse to be resigned to violence and evil; and urging leaders of nations to create a world of solidarity and peace based on justice.
FIRST SUNDAY OF THE NEW YEAR
New Year Blessing of the Home On the first Sunday of the New Year–the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord–families and households may wish to bless their homes. A blessing of the home can be found in Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers (Liturgical Press).
National Migration Week
Prayer for Immigrants and Refugees:
Dear Jesus, you are the refuge of people on the move. We ask you to grant immigrants, refugees, and other migrants peace, protection, and comfort. Help us to recognize that whenever we welcome the stranger in your name, we welcome you. Teach us to recognize your presence in every human being. Bring us together as one family, at the banquet table of your love, with you who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
Querido Jesús, eres el refugio de la gente que marcha de un lado a otro. Te pedimos que concedas a los inmigrantes, refugiados y otros migrantes paz, protección y consuelo. Ayúdanos a reconocer que cada vez que acogemos al forastero en tu nombre, te acogemos a ti. Enséñanos a reconocer tu presencia en cada ser humano. Reúnenos como una sola familia, en la mesa del banquete de tu amor, contigo que vives y reinas con el Padre y el Espíritu Santo, ahora y por siempre. Amén.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Also known as the Octave (“eight days”) of Prayer for Christian Unity, this week marks a time for special prayer for the unity of all Christians with Jesus the Lord–who prayed at the Last Supper for his followers “that they all may be one”–and with one another.
Christians have celebrated the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity since 1894. The theme and biblical focus are determined by an international joint committee of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Commission for the Promotion of Christian Unity. National and regional councils of churches work to adapt the celebration to their local situation.
“In order to unite with one another, we must love one another; in order to love one another, we must know one another; in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another.”
—“Testament of Cardinal Mercier”
JANUARY 28 - FEBRUARY 3
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