A rant for Epiphanytide
Yesterday was Epiphany, & a day of obligation for the Roman sort, but only because it happened to fall on a Sunday. As an ex-Anglican (once vertiginously High) I am still getting used to the Novus Ordo calendar, in which enough changes were made to throw simple folk like me into abject confusion.
In that Anglican tradition, self-consciously “catholic” with a suspiciously small “c,” many Mediaeval conventions were preserved a little longer than elsewhere. I treasure my old (1955) Anglican Breviary, in which Dominican-Sarum usages of the age before Henry VIII leap back into life, closely following the Latin, but translated into the fine English we admire in the Book of Common Prayer. It is Catholic by intention in every nuance; it should therefore be repossessed by the proper authorities in the Holy See. A few tiny corrections would fix Protestant glitches, if any can be found. It won’t be easy to find them, for through it all there breathes a gloriously Catholic spirit, from before even the Council of Trent. They will pull this Breviary out of my cold dead hand.
Changes happen, over long stretches of time, & where they were admirable & necessary they are apt to be retained. Over time stupid arbitrary changes are discarded. I look forward with as much enthusiasm to the 28th century as I do back upon the 14th. Here in the early 21st, however, there are some serious irritations. In most cases we are speaking of changes made suddenly, on a titanic scale. In almost every one I look into, the question of “when” is answered, “sometime since 1962.”
In my backward, regressive, & reactionary opinion, as also in fact, the Calendar & the Liturgy are one thing. Together they bespeak, beyond our manner of public prayer, our way of life. The Mass (as I was casually taught, by transubstantiationist & metousiostical Anglican clerics) is our congregation within the Body of Christ; & the Host is the thing itself. But just as the “spirit of Christmas” is supposed to be remembered throughout the year, the spirit of the Mass goes forth into the world. We do not cease to be Christians when we walk out of church. We have been restored, but this restoration is carried with & within us. With me so far?
From her beginnings, Holy Church was colonizing time. Over centuries this imperial act was accomplished. In the world we have seasons (varying with latitude & location), & the lunar & solar cycles from which any “secular” calendar is constructed. We had months & weeks & days already established, from the pagan Roman world we inherited & re-animated. It was as good as any system then around, there was no need to change it. The Church Calendar was mapped onto this.
Now, the Church seasons do not correspond to the external climate & geography. Rather they inform them, & in a curious way, climate & geography adapt to them. For these are spiritual seasons, describing an inner cycle of things — life within that Body of Christ. Advent, Christmastide, the Epiphany, Candlemas, Septuagesima, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost — seasons in the Life. Local & universal customs turn in this round, & every Catholic Christian is constantly reminded of the order of things in that turning. Commemorations are built into the fabric, a supple one of moveable & immoveable feasts & fasts; & what emerged over the centuries was astonishingly beautiful.
The season of the Epiphany is within the season of Christmas, but through its Octave begins to turn us with itself, from the Nativity, through the childhood, towards the mission of Christ. By degrees we are brought back to contemplation of the Crucifixion; & through that, & only through that, to the Resurrection, the Ascension, the world to come. It is a continuous motion, a very solemn & reverent dance, & even in the long season after Whitsunday, to the beginning of Advent again, there were & are wheels within wheels, & markers. Not only at Christmas & Easter were we Christian, but in every day throughout the year, & all who would be Christian are included within this liturgical dance: the Liturgy of the Hours within the Liturgy of the Days within the Liturgy of the Seasons. Wheels within wheels.
The most encouraging thing I found in the “reformed & updated” Divine Office I acquired, upon becoming a Catholic, was entitled “The Office of Readings.” The choice & arrangement of texts was quite superb. The translations, at least in the prettily-bound British edition I bought, were good: the best that could be hoped for in contemporary English. I cherish that.
The most discouraging thing was “Ordinary Time.” Suddenly, next Sunday, after celebrating “The Baptism of the Lord,” we will be dumped out of this liturgical sequence into Week One of Ordinary Time. Then after a few weeks of that, saved by Ash Wednesday, & got back on track. We are good for eight Sundays past Easter, till the day after Pentecost as I understand, then we go back into the liturgical dumpster.
Whose bright idea was it to wreck the continuity in this way? To totally smash it up so that we are desperately turning the pages of our missals backwards & forwards, trying to find where in Hell we have now landed? … Well, I have my suspicions on that score.
Parcelled with this convulsion, the knocking around of the most solemn Holy feasts, which once fell where they fell. It was unthinkable to transfer them, say to the nearest Sunday, the way a provincial government transfers bank holidays to the next or nearest Monday — for the sake of a notion of convenience that is aggressively worldly.
Twelve days from Christmas is twelve days from Christmas; one cannot muck with such a plain thing. I, at least, cannot get my little mind around, “The Epiphany of the Lord is celebrated on 6 January, unless, where it is not observed as a Holy day of obligation, it has been assigned to the Sunday occurring between 2 and 8 January.” I pray to God that I will never become so smart that I will be able to understand this instruction.
There is no such thing as “ordinary time,” in the sense intended. (The “Ordinary of the Mass” is the opposite concept: for it refers to what is invariable.) Nothing about time itself is “ordinary” in the street secular sense, as Saint Augustine patiently explained. Everything about it is instead quite extraordinary.
One might blather on about one’s other liturgical grievances & horrors; I am easily willing to play the traditionalist bore. But here there is a breach in time itself. In a grand way, this notion of “ordinary time” is like the experience of riding a Toronto trolley. You were going somewhere, then suddenly it is short-turned. Everyone gets out on the sidewalk to wait until the next (crowded) trolley comes along. Finally we all manage to pack into that one, & then it is short-turned. It is as if the transit authority existed for the sole purpose of punishing people for not buying cars.
The whole of life out there in the post-Christian world is “ordinary time” — i.e. cold, ugly, & brutally meaningless. That is what the world is like, in the absence of Christ. Against that, our fathers’ fathers tried to build a temporal order of warmth, beauty, & meaning. Our task in this world, as I imagine, is to rebuild what their sons tore down; to build, anew, right back over the parking lots of “ordinary” space & time; & to restore the inheritance of which we were so shamefully cheated.