There are many occasions of sin for a priest, and one came up recently when I decided to read at Epiphany the traditional announcement of the moveable feasts for the coming year, as directed by the Roman Missal Appendix 1. It’s meant to be a solemn moment when ‘after the singing of the Gospel, a Deacon or cantor, in keeping with an ancient practice of Holy Church, announces from the ambo the moveable feasts of the coming year.’ It’s full of phrases such as ‘know, dear brethren,’ and ‘the fast of the most sacred Lenten season.’
Such solemnity always brings out the irreverent streak in me, especially as I assume nobody in the congregation is actually writing these dates down given that they can easily find them on their iPhones or laptops nowadays. But when I came to the end, the announcement of the First Sunday of Advent 2022, it was hard to resist the temptation to cap it all with: ‘So there you are, dear brethren in Christ, only 353 shopping days to Christmas.’
I am glad to report that I did resist the temptation. But if I had given in, I would probably have blamed the Filipinos. These wonderful people tell me that they begin thinking about Christmas after the summer holiday, in September. And this year we were privileged to celebrate with them their traditional ‘Misa de Gallo,’ which translates as ‘Cockcrow Mass,’ on the nine days before Christmas, though I confess we didn’t celebrate it at cockcrow, but at 7pm the evening before, and I didn’t actually say any of the Masses myself, as other priests came forward for this delightful tradition.
I have a lot of sympathy for starting to think about Christmas in September, and indeed for the whole idea of looking ahead to the next sacred season once you’ve finished the previous one. St. Athanasius tells us it is an excellent thing to go from one feast to another, and indeed without the irruption of eternity into our time, thanks to the liturgical seasons, time can easily become a joyless round and a source of depression and weariness.
In fact, when I worked for the Catholic Agency for Evangelisation, one of my colleagues discovered that there is a particular day of the year when most suicides occur. I can’t remember the exact date, but it’s somewhere in the second half of January. The joys of Christmas have been left behind, the winter is barely halfway through, and life can seem very empty. The only excitement seems to come from shopping, so it is no surprise that retailers are quick to fill the void with Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day and the like, all great opportunities for spending or making money.
So the list of moveable feasts is actually a great consolation. The saints, too, with their cycle of feast days, give us inspiration, and it is worth seeking out on the various websites available the feast days of lesser -known saints, especially in the winter months between Christmas and Easter. This January I have discovered, for example, St. Pega, the Lincolnshire hermitess (Jan. 8), St. Simeon Stylites (Jan. 5), who lived on top of a pillar for most of his life, and St. Peter Orseolo (Jan. 10), a Doge of Venice who walked out one day without telling anyone and became a monk, and later a hermit, in the Pyrenees. The only problem is they give me a new temptation: to inflict a lecture about them on my long-suffering parishioners….