Monday, 2 January 2017

On the sixteen (!) days of Christmas...

Prophets window, Notre Dame, Paris

Numbers are important in Scripture and the tradition, laden with symbolic meaning.

And the Christmas season, once upon a time, played on several of them - octaves, the twelve days of Christmas, the forty days of the whole Christmas season (up to the feast of the Purification), and so forth.

Over the last couple of centuries, these times have been progressively eroded, with the Christmas season becoming ever shorter.

This year however, due to the oddities caused by 'Epiphany Sunday' a strange reverse occurs: in the Ordinary Form the Christmas season actually lasts almost as long as it does in the Extraordinary Form, stretching to some sixteen days.

The twelve days of Christmas

The twelve days of Christmas, which traditionally stretched between the feast of the Nativity and the Epiphany, for example, are meant to suggest to us governmental perfection and completion - hence the twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, and so forth.

My own theory is that our ability to recognise these symbolic meanings was destroyed by the invention of chapter numbers for the Bible in the fourteenth century, and then verse numbers in the sixteenth: convenient those these reference points are, by seeing so many numbers when we read Scripture, we no longer notice the important ones that really matter.

Be that as it may, the destruction of tradition has been a progressive affair.

The Christmas season was cut back from forty days, making a fitting counterweight of feasting to offset the fasting of Advent, to end after the octave of Epiphany.

The various Octaves and Vigils that used to be celebrated at this time were abolished.

And then, in most recent times we have come to the curious phenomenon of moving feasts of obligation to the nearest Sunday.


The net result of these changes is that in the 1962 calendar, from January 2 to January 5 have become Class IV days, instead of Octave days of St Stephen (Jan 2), St John (Jan 3), Holy Innocents (Jan 4) and the Vigil of the Epiphany (Jan 5).

The 1962 reformers actually didn't do too bad a job, in my opinion, in selecting texts from the season to create the 'Ordinary of Nativitytide' in the Divine Office.

But the net result is that we do lose some of the reminders that the Incarnation turns the world upside down, and the world does not much like the fact.

We lose the bitter-sweet mix of texts that serve as a reminder that Christmas is not just about sentimentality; rather, that to follow Christ is to follow the way of the Cross.

Sixteen days of the Incarnation?

Is there any symbolism, though, in the number sixteen, the length of this year's Christmas season in the Ordinary Form?

Happily there is, according to the sixth century writer Cassiodorus at least.  His commentary on Psalm 16, which he sees as dealing with the Incarnation and the two natures of Christ, points out that there are sixteen 'canonical' prophets in Scripture "so that the Lord's incarnation is seen to be worthily proclaimed by this number, in which the chorus of the prophets is seen to be assembled".

There is rather a need of prophets in our own time, holy men and women willing to speak truth to power, so perhaps there is indeed something providential in the number given these difficult times for both Church and State....


Marco da Vinha said...

Secular culture has completely flipped Christmas on its head. There is all this "mirth and merriment" up until Christmas (some people will stretch it until New Year's day), and then it is suddenly all over the next. Carols, which were originally sung after the Nativity, are now sung before; suddenly it's a joyous season before the Nativity, but we're not told why exactly, apart from some obscure reference to "Christmas magic", or "seasonal spirit". I saw many a sign saying "eat, drink, and be merry", and couldn't help chuckle to myself when remembering their original context. With the Christmas season turned on its head, it's no surprise to find that the manger itself has been turned upside down and, come Nativity, the Christ-child has fallen out, nowhere to be found...

Michael Demers said...

I wonder if there is anyone celebrating 40 days of Christmas these days.