Saturday 18 January 2014

Rethinking Advent to Candlemas

Here's an idea:

This year I was struck again, as I am every year, by how odd it seems to preach on the Baptism of Christ the week after Epiphany. Especially since Candlemas - when Jesus is 40 days old - comes weeks later.

So I started wondering if we could move the feast of the Baptism of Christ to the Sunday before Lent. Then, the calendar would follow the dramatic narrative. Jesus is baptised, hears God's confirmation of his identity and call, and immediately goes out to the desert for 40 days and nights.

And then a colleague on twitter (@trinheadmaster) mused that we could do with some Ordinary Time between Epiphany and Candlemas, and I agreed. But then I thought - if we were to move the Baptism, why not move Candlemas to the Sunday after Epiphany? It is currently 40 days after Christmas because that fits when Jewish babies were presented in the Temple. But how many people find that a meaningful resonance nowadays? And if we moved it, then we would have a solid 'Season of Jesus' Childhood', made up of 2 weeks of Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas.

We often bemoan the fact that nobody takes Christmas season seriously in our society, and that Advent has effectively become Christmas. I wonder if giving the period of 4 weeks after Christmas a solid focus on Jesus' childhood  might revitalise this post-Christmas period. We could even make the following week focus on that childhood visit to the Temple for good measure.

And what, then, of Advent? The idea of four weeks of fasting has long gone, however much some may miss it. And there are few churches that manage to avoid singing carols in Advent - and those that do are generally seen as stodgy and even (ironically) as not getting into the Spirit of Christmas. And having missed Advent Sunday this year - I was away - I really did miss it, but was immediately plunged into a whirl of carol services and the like.

On Twitter last year, there was a very spirited debate about the pink candle in the Advent wreath. Apart from those raised in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, nobody had the faintest idea that it was meant to symbolise a lightening of the Advent fast for 'Gaudete Sunday'. Nobody fasts for Advent anyway, so lightening the fast is pointless. And mine was not the only church that vaguely assumed it must be meant for Mary, being pink!

So I wonder...what if we reinvented Gaudete Sunday, and used it to split Advent into two? The first two weeks could be very properly kept as Advent, focusing in particular on the Second Coming of Christ, and the Four Last Things. It would not be ridiculously hard to keep most Christmas events until after the 2nd Sunday in Advent, whereas refusing to hold any until after Christmas day itself seems absurd and impractical. But then after the 2nd Sunday,  the last two weeks could be very properly refocused on excitement and anticipation about the coming of Christmas.

So, I seem to be proposing a modest rewrite of the liturgical calendar between Advent and Candlemas!

1. Advent is divided into two fortnights.
Advent 1 & Advent 2: Traditional Advent themes of Judgement, 2nd Coming, etc.
Advent 3, Gaudete Sunday is reinstated as the beginning of Christmas season - looking forward to Christmas. The weeks of Advent 3 & 4 are thus properly filled with Carol services etc.

2.Candlemas is moved from 2nd Feb to the Sunday after Epiphany, and possibly the week after that is focused on Jesus' later childhood. The 3 or 4 Sundays after Christmas thus become a 'Season of Jesus as a Child', encouraging a longer period of focus on the reality and implications of the incarnation. After this there is a period of Ordinary Time.

3. The Baptism of Christ is moved from the Sunday after Epiphany to the Sunday before Lent.

What do you think?

(post edited slightly to correct an error and explain why Candlemas is currently 2 Feb).


  1. This is such a good idea. I wonder, though, if we should move some of the fasting period to January - when half the country is fasting anyway?

  2. Why not write our own Liturgical Calendar ignoring both tradition and the greater majority of the Church Catholic and whilst we are at it why not change Christmas to October (possibly more accurate historically) Or, how about leaving things as they are and stop messing about with well-known Christian festivals

  3. I particularly like proposal 3 - linking our Lenten fast to Jesus' fast and trials in the wilderness. I wonder if there is a correlation between fans of paedobaptism and people who feel its better to do the baptism of Jesus straight after Epiphany, I do also like your idea of a season of the young Jesus in January.

    The best thing about your proposal though as that if we could get it through in the next few days I won't have to finish this Candlemas liturgy and sermon for next weekend!

  4. Doesn't this misunderstand what we are actually doing in liturgical celebrations? Are we really watching a year long play each year? Or is Christmas really a celebration of the Incarnation and our Divinisation - and the baby is a wonderful emotional hook? To get stuck so much on the hook and use that as a distraction, rather than entering through the Incarnation into our Divinisation seems to me to be exactly what the church should NOT be doing. Yesterday we celebrated the Conversion of Paul - on your rewrite that would come after The Day of Pentecost. Etc!



  5. What a lot off rot. Why do you not rewrite the Holy Book?

  6. The Liturgical Calendar has been formulated over centuries of the Church. Do we really need to confuse people by reducing it to a time-perspective rationale. If we begin this, then the whole process would have to be reorientated and what good would that do? I really believe most thinking Anglicans are already aware that liturgical seasons are not necessarily based on a human time progression. The present system at least allows many different aspects of the theological emphases of our faith to be celebrated - sometimes, in must be acknowledged, by themal co-inherence rather than trying to get every aspects of Jesus' life into a tidy frame.

    At least, the term 'epiphany' is congruent with the successive celebrations of the 'showing forth of Jesus' that are celebrated around this time of the liturgical year.
    Otherwise, we might need a 33-year cycle, to match up to the earthly life of Jesus.

  7. Babies weren't presented in the Temple 40 days after birth or ever - not even first born sons 'dedicated to the Lord'. 40 days after birth a woman needed to undergo ritual purification before she could enter the Temple. In fact I think the RC Church still calls it 'The pruification of BVM'. The Septuagint does say 'their purification' rather than 'her' - not sure quite why. In any case i think the C-of-E should BETTER use of Advent - not try to telescope into 2 weeks - though of course to do that would mean doing away (God forbid) with carol services (in Zurich we have 7, but I'm not the incumbant)

  8. Some miscellaneous thoughts:

    Isn't properly Advent already thus divided anyway? At least in the sense that we begin with the Advent-still-awaited and then move towards the first coming of our Lord, especially with the O-antiphons?

    I wonder whether the answer is for churches to hold their 'internal' carol services at the 'proper time', alongside any external services in the latter part of Advent without displacing the season - at least in terms of the main congregational services.

    I think there is much value in retaining the 40 days until the Purification because the typological significance that carries - even if we need to do more catechesis on the topic!

    And as for some Green in the time - that may be one of the good features of the post-Vatican II Roman calendar - in it, this week is the third week of Ordinary Time.

    Regarding fasting after the Baptism, I think there is ancient precedent, but the Early (5th Century ish?) Church decided that a 40 day fast to match Jesus in the desert coupled with due fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter was too much, and merged the two - though not to a universal 40 days, e.g. the Ambrosian Calendar to this day starts Lent on the First Sunday, though does have a 6 week Advent in compensation!

  9. I don't really want to comment on the Advent suggestions, except that I did know a priest in New Zealand who moved the whole lot into November, and had a 4-week Christmas season in December. The fact that no one has emulated his idea suggests that it was not as clever as first appeared.
    But let me add a southern hemisphere perspective on Candlemas. In this part of the world, most of society closes down for summer at Christmas (Christmas Eve is one of the busiest days of the year for traffic as people head for holidays). Schools remain on holiday until the end of January. Candlemas on the Sunday nearest Feb 2 therefore becomes a wonderful way to round off the Christmas/summer break, and signal the beginning of the year proper. We will be blessing all the candles to be used in worship in the coming year, plus candles brought by families for use at home in the coming months. It works really well, despite the lack of darkness to display the candle-light. For our sake alone, please leave that feast where it is!

    Rev'd Dr Edward Prebble

  10. I'd agree that we need to think about Advent in the light of the cultural realities around us and the way they intersect properly Christian liturgies. I think that the approach you're suggesting could help. I'd make further suggestions too (see principally that we extend Advent in effect -though I think that thematically the Kingdom season already has started to do that. If we went in for the old Celtic idea of a 40 day prep for Christmas, that could help. I'm also thinking that the fasting element could learn a thing or two from the Muslim Ramadan (during which the greatest amount of food is consumed in the Muslim world). I think it'd be good to keep Candlemas as 2nd Feb -but re-think the lectionary link since the presentation would be earlier in the scheme you propose. The tradition of having something on 2nd Feb or thereabouts is an old agriculturally-linked one and has resonance for those wanting to link to earth-celebrations, so it'd be good to be able to mark that appropriately. I'm wondering whether that might be the place to remember Jesus' in the Temple among the scholars. Of course, this would throw out your proposed season of Jesus the child. So maybe there's some other reconceptualisation possible.
    I really like the idea of the Sunday before Lent marking the Baptism of Christ.

  11. Epiphany (Jesus' baptism) was the feast that adoptianists invented at the winter solstice, which they had on 6 January. The Magi story is a relic of combination of Jesus' baptism with nativity. This historical reason and its meaning is the only object of the feast; if the two events are torn apart from one another, the feast has no raison d'ĂȘtre any more.

    Advent, when invented by the Irish, had 6 weeks. The Eastern, Milanese and Mozarabic liturgies still keep the 6, while the Roman missal betrays the former practice (the Doom Sunday preceeding Advent, while once it started it).

    Let's purpose is not to commemorate events, but it provides catechetical material for the catechumens. (The Roman rite has no weekdays Mass outside octaves and Lent, but in Lent, every day has its readings, pointing always to the catechumenate.)