A Catholic Guide to the Traditional 40 Days of Christmas
COMMENTARY: May we follow Mary’s ‘sweet example’ in adoring the Child until Feb. 2.
The high festive days of Christmas have passed. We have sung Christmas carols at Mass, in the car and in our homes. We have spent joyous hours with family and friends. We have presented gifts to each other. We have eaten more cookies than we care to admit. And here in Minnesota, Gustav Holst’s adaption of Christina Rossetti’s A Christmas Carol rings true, for snow has fallen, “snow on snow, snow on snow on snow.” Our long, cold winter is one of the many reasons I have embraced the traditional celebration of what Dom Prosper Guéranger, in The Liturgical Year, calls “these Forty Days of Christmas” — the time that spans from “our Saviour’s Birth even to the day of Our Lady’s Purification.”
Dom Gaspar Lefebvre, in the Saint Andrew Daily Missal for laypeople assisting at the traditional Latin Mass, explains: “The Christmas cycle is like a magnificent drama in three acts, whose purpose is to show forth, in three distinct ways, the Incarnation of the Word and the raising of human nature into union with God.”
This begins with Advent as we anticipate the coming. Then with Christmastide, we contemplate “the mysteries of Our Lord’s childhood” and “are made to see with our eyes and handle with our hands the Word of life,” who became human so “that we may have fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ and that our joy may be full.” The third act, which is now termed as part of Ordinary Time, between the Baptism of Our Lord and Candlemas, “is an extension of Christmastide, in which Our Lord’s divinity continues to be affirmed.” This is done by “Christ Himself who acts and speaks as God.”
In the new liturgical calendar, the Christmas season ends with the Baptism of Our Lord, which is either the Sunday or Monday after the Epiphany of the Lord. This year it falls on Jan. 9, a Monday. This nominal ending, however, does not exclude Catholics from continuing the traditional pious practices of the Church, for even with the change from liturgical white to liturgical green, there is one more feast to come connected to Our Lord’s nativity. This feast falls on Feb. 2, and its traditional name is Candlemas Day, the day on which candles are blessed for the year. In the new Church calendar, it is called the Presentation of Our Lord; in the traditional calendar, it is called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. This last Christmas feast is found in Scripture, in Luke 2:22-38, which explains how the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph follow the Mosaic Law. As Pope Benedict XVI notes in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives:
“In the book of Leviticus it is laid down that, after giving birth to a male child, a woman is impure for seven days (that is, she is excluded from taking part in worship), that the boy is to be circumcised on the eighth day, and that the woman must then remain at home a further thirty-three days for her blood to be purified (Leviticus 12:1-4). After this she is to present a purification sacrifice. […] Mary presented the offering of the poor.”
In this, Benedict explained, we see the Holy Family living “under the law” and the Blessed Mother, who as sinless does not need to be purified, participating in the purification of the world. In her obedience to the law, “she serves the fulfillment of the promises.” These days between the naming of her son and her purification are sacred days we have to spend with the heart of the Blessed Mother. We can have our prayer times with the Blessed Mother and Mother Church, complete with loving adoration, praise and thanksgiving. To this end, there are some practices we can adopt in our homes in this time after Epiphany before the Presentation and Purification.
What does this mean for liturgical living?
We can keep our Advent wreaths central in the home, with candles switched to red or white. Christmas wreaths can remain on the door. If we are able, it would be fitting to keep the tree up during this season. Though, since it is a simpler, extended time to adore the Infant Jesus, it is at least fitting to keep our Nativity scenes central in our home so that we can gaze upon or even hold the Babe of Bethlehem in our hands during prayer.
For families that abstain from Christmas carols during Advent, this season can also be a time of continuing to sing and listen to this music, especially the songs with which we can join our hearts in worship. Our family has started singing O Come All Ye Faithful around our Advent wreath before dinner, similar to how we sang O Come, O Come Emmanuel during Advent. Families can also keep handy a basket or stack of picture Christmas books for children to continue to look at. And if one is so inspired, one could have a last Christmas dinner party near Candlemas, honoring the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of Our Lady. Our family usually waits to bake one of our favorite Christmas cookie recipes until mid-January to extend the Christmas joy.
These latter of the 40 Days of Christmas are a time to spend in quiet with the Divine Infant. Advent will be busy in perpetuity and the Twelve Days of Christmas are often full of gatherings, but these lengthening days of January — when the secular marking of Christmas is long past — are for spending with our God, who became a little child. Dom Guéranger explains how to pray during this liturgical time:
“[O]ur meditation should turn principally upon the Birth of Jesus Christ in our souls. […] [W]e must return to the very basis of our spiritual life, and yield, with childlike docility, to the inspirations of the Holy Ghost. The object of our contemplation, as well as the source of our confidence, is Jesus, the Incarnate Word, swathed in the bands of infancy, laid in the Crib, presented in the Temple, and fleeing into Egypt. His love for us has induced him to subject himself to these weaknesses of childhood, in order that even we may imitate our God! […] [His] Blessed Mother kept all these mysteries in her heart, and pondered them: Let us follow her sweet example and feed our souls with the heavenly Manna.”
May we all spend this time staying close to the Babe of Bethlehem, meeting the Child in our souls and bringing him into the world.
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