Christmas and Epiphany
THE DAYS BETWEEN CHRISTMAS AND EPIPHANY
These are days when the great notes struck on the feast of Christmas echo and re-echo in our ears until the Epiphany gathers them into a great golden chord. Some of these days have their own liturgical character, like St. Stephen or St. John; others are strongly marked by the secular calendar, like New Year's Day.
Special observances for specific days are given on the following pages, but that does not mean that the other days do not count. For example, carolling and story telling belong to the whole Christmas season. Hospitality and giving to others also must continue if true Christmas joy is to remain. An outing to which friends are invited or a party that includes a round of carolling become perhaps even more appropriate with the approach of Epiphany.
Then there are the other feasts which can only be mentioned in passing here: St. Thomas a Becket (the young married couples in Loveland have a tradition of giving T. S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral" on his day); the feast of the Circumcision with its Mass still full of the wonders of the holy Birth; the feast of the Holy Name.
CHRISTMAS NIGHT PRAYERS AT THE CRIB
Special night prayers around the crib keep the Christmas spirit alive even when nothing else is on schedule. If the Wise Men are making their journey to Bethlehem through the house, their resting places may be fixed just before night prayers begin. The Christ-Candle is also lit to begin the prayers, which might run something like the following.
FATHER: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
FATHER: Our help is in the Name of the Lord.
ALL: Who made heaven and earth.
FATHER: Let us think over whether our actions during the day have done honor to the Christ-Child (pause).
Let us ask forgiveness for what we have not done as we should.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name; Thy kingdom come: Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
ALL: Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
ALL SING: This day Christ is born; this day the Savior has appeared; this day angels are singing on earth, archangels are rejoicing. This day the just are glad and say, Glory to God in high heaven, alleluia.
ALL PRAY: (Psalm 133 from Compline, the Church's night prayer.)
Come, bless the Lord, * all you servants of the Lord. Who stand in the house of the Lord * during the hours of the night. Lift up your hands toward the sanctuary * and bless the Lord. May the Lord bless you from Sion, * the maker of heaven and earth. Glory be to the Father and to the Son * and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, * world without end. Amen.
ALL SING: (Repeat antiphon preceding psalm.)
MOTHER OR ELDEST CHILD: (Lesson from Jeremias): You are in our midst, Lord, and Your holy Name has been invoked upon us. Do not forsake us, O Lord our God.
ALL: Thanks be to God.
FATHER: Into Your hands, O Lord, * I commend my spirit.
ALL: Into Your hands, O Lord, * I commend my spirit.
FATHER: For You have redeemed us, O Lord, God of truth.
ALL: I commend my spirit.
FATHER: Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
ALL: Into Your hands, O Lord, * I commend my spirit.
FATHER: Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of Your eye.
ALL: Shelter us under the shadow of Your wings.
FATHER: Now, Lord, you may dismiss your servant, in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have set before all nations as a light of revelation for the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
ALL: As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, * world without end. Amen.
FATHER: O Lord, hear my prayer.
ALL: And let my cry come to You.
FATHER: Let us pray. Visit this dwelling, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy. Let Thy holy Angels dwell herein, who may keep us in peace, and let Thy blessing be always upon us. Through Christ our Lord.
FATHER: Let us remember the saints who come with us today to show their love for the Christ-Child.
(The Collect or some other appropriate part of the Mass of the day is read.)
Let us now sing a carol to the Christ-Child so that He may rest peacefully with us this night.
Night prayers end with a favorite carol.
ST. STEPHEN'S DAY
St. Stephen's Day immediately follows Christmas, and the Church rejoices in this first testimony by blood to the fact of the Incarnation. Children love the Gospel story about St. Stephen, who for love of God was stoned to death while praying for his enemies. It is also becoming a practice on St. Stephen's Day to pray particularly for our enemies, and it is appropriate to remember the persecuted Church throughout the world and all the people who, like Stephen, are being afflicted for their faith.
St. Stephen was one of the first "social workers" in the Church, and it was his task to organize meals to feed the poor. In remembrance of Stephen's work for the needy, the British people used to collect money throughout the year in little clay boxes. On the feast of St. Stephen or "Boxing day" as it is called in Britain, these boxes were broken and the money was distributed to the poor.
In some homes and communities a box is labelled and set beside the Christmas tree. Members of the family, in gratitude for their Christmas blessings, choose one of their gifts for the "St. Stephen's Box"--clothing and other useful articles which are sent abroad to the poor or to a mission country.
As the family gathers around the lighted Christmas tree in the evening to eat minced meat pie dessert, the mother or father reads the story of Good King Wenceslaus who "looked out on the Feast of Stephen" and who enjoyed eating his minced meat pie after sharing his meal with a poor peasant family. The story is delightfully told in "More Six O'Clock Saints" by Joan Windham, and can easily be acted out by the children. Afterwards all join in singing Christmas carols. especially "Good King Wenceslaus."
ST. JOHN'S DAY
An age old tradition connected with St. John's Day, December 27, springs from the legend of the poisoned wine he was served by the disciples of an enemy. He made the sign of the cross over the cup and drank it without harm. In remembrance, wine that is officially blessed after the morning Mass on St. John's Day may be taken home and drunk with special ceremony. In the absence of the priest's blessing, the father of the family may read at the table one or more of the prayers from the ritual--for example, the following:
Let us pray. Holy Lord, Father Almighty, eternal God! You willed that Your Son, equal to You in agelessness and substance should descend from heaven and in the fulness of time be born of the most holy Virgin Mary. Thus He could seek the lost and wayward sheep and carry it on His shoulders to the sheepfold, and could cure the man fallen among robbers of his wounds by pouring in oil and wine. Deign now to bless and sanctify this wine which You produced for man's drink. Whoever drinks of it on this holy feast, grant him life in body and soul. By Your goodness, let it be to him strength to prosper him on the way, that his journey may come to a blessed end. Through the same Christ our Lord.
The wine is poured into a glass by the father, who drinks and passes it first to the mother, and then around the table to children and guests, in commemoration of the disciple of love. A greeting showing that it is love that binds the family together goes round with the cup: "Drink to the love of St. John, the Apostle." "And where love is, there is God," responds the next member of the family, taking the cup and drinking.
THE HOLY INNOCENTS
The Feast of the Holy Innocents is fittingly celebrated soon after Christmas Day since the Holy Innocents stood in the place of the Child Jesus and saved Him from death by their own shedding of blood. Parents have an opportunity to explain that the Holy Innocents are the special patrons of small children; they help them to please the Infant by obeying their parents, loving their playmates, sharing their toys.
After morning Mass it is becoming customary in some communities for the children to gather around the crib in the parish church for the special blessing of children by the parish priest. If this is not possible, then the family gathers in the evening around the crib, and the father leads everyone present in the Our Father. Then he says the versicle, "O Lord, hear my prayer," and all respond, "And let my cry come unto You." The father proceeds with this prayer, taken from the blessing for children:
Let us pray. O Lord Jesus Christ, once You embraced and placed Your hands upon the little children who came to You, and said: "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and their angels always see the face of my Father!" Look now with fatherly eyes on the innocence of these children and their parents' devotion, and bless them this day through our ministry. (The father signs the forehead of each child with the sign of the cross.)
In Your grace and goodness let them advance continually, longing for You, loving You, fearing You, keeping Your commandments. Then they will surely come to their destined home, through You, Savior of the world. Who lives and reigns forever and ever.
All answer, "Amen."
Then the father says to the children: "May God bless you. And may He keep your hearts and minds--the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit."
All answer, "Amen."
The father then sprinkles the children with holy water. (The Church's official blessing of children is included in the Roman Ritual.)
This feast day, when the father blesses the children with holy water and signs their foreheads with the sign of the cross, reminds us that the father of the family stands at the head of the "little church" which is the home. In this capacity, he has the privilege of blessing the children not only today, but every day. Perhaps the ceremony suggested above could inaugurate the custom of the father blessing the children each evening at family night prayers.
Since the feast of the Holy Innocents particularly concerns young children, the youngest child in the family is today given special privileges. He chooses the dessert for the family dinner, for example; he leads the family in Christmas carols, turns on the Christmas tree lights for the evening's festivities or performs other functions held in honor in the home.
A delightful centerpiece for the family table today can be made by surrounding the large Christ-Candle with smaller white candles representing the Holy Innocents.
The number of small candles might be as many as there are children in the family. Each child is allowed to light one small candle from the flame of the Christ-Candle, signifying that inasmuch as he received his life from Christ, he will live and if need be die for Christ just as the Holy Innocents did. The following round may be sung by the children.
Light of Christ, let me be a tiny flame reflecting thee.
NEW YEAR'S EVE
New Year's Eve is celebrated in almost every country, for people universally recognize it as an appropriate time for relatives and old acquaintances to meet and participate in the festivities of dancing, singing and feasting.
Nowadays, most Americans are inclined to spend this eve away from home. Would it not be possible to "baptize" the New Year's Eve observance by restoring corporate celebration--where families could gather together, and both old and young find entertainment adapted to their age and interests?
Before the party breaks into "Auld Lang Syne," everyone could join in an Hour of Watching and prayer, peacefully and hopefully affirming their new resolutions to God. The booklet, "New Life for New Year's Eve," contains an "Hour of Watching" for the last hour of the old year, a prayer-hour which can be used in the parish or adapted for the home celebration. (Available from Grailville Writing Center, Loveland, Ohio.)
NEW YEAR'S DAY
Very often countries that are not at all related observe feasts in the same manner. The traditions for New Year's Day illustrate vividly that although people differ in nationality, they are basically alike.
In Holland the children formally present for their parents a recitation of a self-composed poem proclaiming new resolutions for the coming year. In China the younger generations, and especially all the married children, dress up in their best attire and come to pay respects to their elders with gifts and good wishes. And in French Canada, before sitting down to the New Year's feast, the younger members of the family thank their parents for the love and kindness they have received during the past year, and wish them God's blessing.
Thus New Year's seems to be internationally parents' day. Some of the customs related above would be most appropriate for the American scene. For example, if parents would help children "solemnize" their New Year's resolutions, perhaps they would be taken more seriously. And New Year's, too, could be a day when the children perform special services for their parents-- relieving mother in the kitchen, or preparing a favorite dish for the father of the family.