Is Epiphany A Holy Day, Or Isn’t It?

Today the Church marks the Feast of the Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, as we recall the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child.  As I wrote about yesterday, in Barcelona and in many other parts of the world, gifts are exchanged on this day rather than on Christmas itself.  However it should also be noted that in Spain, Italy, and many other countries, today is also a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics to attend mass, apart from their obligation to attend mass on Sundays.  Why is this apparently not the case in the United States?  The answer, as you shall see, is a little bit tricky.

In both the Western and the Eastern Churches the Feast of the Epiphany is, in fact, a Holy Day of Obligation.   In the Western Church, things are a bit more muddled than in the Eastern Churches.  Some Western countries, such as Spain, celebrate the Epiphany on the date on which it is supposed to fall, twelve days after Christmas.  Yet in many other countries, such as  the United States, Epiphany is a sort of default Holy Day of Obligation.

Here in America, the celebration of the Epiphany always takes place on the Sunday that falls between January 2nd and January 8th.  Sometimes that means it will be celebrated on its proper date, January 6th, but obviously that does not occur every year. And because Sundays are a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics anyway, this is one of those “two-for-one” specials that the Church since Vatican II seems to be foisting on us more and more frequently.

Regular readers will know how displeased I am when the celebration of a holy day such as the Ascension of the Lord, which brings to an end the Easter Season, is transferred to the nearest Sunday, rather than being commemorated on the date when it is actually supposed to fall.  I find this to be a regrettable policy which the Church really does need to reconsider.  Our grandparents or great-grandparents did not seem to have a problem getting to mass, so why has that obligation been abrogated or transferred when we have things so much easier than they with respect to transportation, reduced work hours, and modern conveniences?

The knee-jerk response to my position – inevitably –  is the following: “There’s nothing to stop you from going to mass on January 6th, if you want to.”  The problem is, that response is based on false reasoning.  It assumes that if I attend mass on the date when a feast actually is supposed to fall, that I will be attending the liturgical celebration written for that feast, with the scripture readings and prayers proper to that day.

Take a look at the mass readings for today, January 6th, on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.  Not a single mention of the Magi, is there?  It is simply a “Christmas Weekday” mass, as one can see from the heading.  That is because the liturgy for the Feast of the Epiphany has been transferred to this coming Sunday; today’s readings and prayers have nothing to do with the Epiphany of Our Lord to the gentiles.

It would seem to this writer that the cause of this, as usual, is the Baby Boomer generation and their adherents, who continue to dominate the Church – for now – and brought us liturgical dancers, nuns who refuse to wear habits, and the campfire “hymns”  of third-rate Jim Croce-wannabees like Marty Haugen and Dan Schutte, taking a lowest common denominator approach to issues such as mass attendance.  The laziness which they displayed in catechising us, their children, is mirrored in their laziness toward liturgy, the celebration of the sacraments, and many other important areas of Catholic life and practice.  They assume that reducing the number of days when Catholics are required to attend mass outside of Sundays will increase mass attendance, when as we are all very much aware, the reverse has happened.

There is an old idiom that the definition of “crazy” is to keep doing the same thing over and over again in the same way and expecting a different result.  We have now had nearly forty years of making things easier for Catholics, with respect to our obligations to God, to the Church, and to one another.  And yet many continue to think that if only things were just a *little* bit easier still, then the churches, seminaries, convents, and schools would be bursting again.  This is nonsense: such changes are not going to occur so long as this lazy view of Catholicism continues to hold sway at the diocesan, the parish, and the religious community levels.

Fortunately, we can see that things are changing, and the announcement today of the elevation of a good man like Archbishop Dolan of New York to wearing the Cardinal’s hat portends more good things to come.  Yet we still have a long way to go.  In the meantime, we must try to do our best and hope that the changes which will eventually take place, as older generations of leadership are replaced, will bring about a renewal of connections to the long traditions of the two-thousand-year history of the Church.

Let not the reader come away from this piece thinking I am some sort of sede vacantist, on the one hand, or a Martin Luther on the other.  I know my place, and far be it from me to disobey what I am told I must do, such as celebrate Epiphany on January 8th this year rather than January 6th. I will do so as the rules prescribe, and I will choose to look charitably on the fact that the transfer of this date for the celebration will actually extend my Christmas commemorations by two additional days – not a bad thing.

Yet I do have to at least raise the question as to whether it would be such a terrible burden to ask us to attend mass on the actual Feast of the Epiphany itself, even when it falls in the middle of the week.  I have yet to be provided with a reasonable justification for the change to the nearest Sunday, a practice which to me seems to water down the impact of the celebration.  With so much secularism characterizing the celebration of Christ’s Birth, surely making a stand for remembering exactly what it is we are celebrating is not something harmful, but ultimately beneficial, to all of His Church.

“The Three Kings” from this year’s official Barcelona City Nativity Scene
Plaça Sant Jaume (St. James’ Square), Barcelona

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One thought on “Is Epiphany A Holy Day, Or Isn’t It?

  1. “They assume that reducing the number of days when Catholics are required to attend mass outside of Sundays will increase mass attendance, when as we are all very much aware, the reverse has happened.”

    I am in complete agreement, although I have to admit I’m a bit relieved that the feast falls on Sunday this year, since we are travelling today and unable to celebrate. Thanks for the informative article and Happy Feast Day!

    Like

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