THE CYCLE OF LIGHT
“Manifestation” is at the heart of the Cycle of Light. The term Epiphany means “manifestation or appearance,” and is a stationary feast, since its placement is based upon the solar calendar. The Apostle Paul’s uses of the term epiphany referred to both the birth of Christ (2 Tim 1:9-10) and to the second coming of Christ (Titus 2:13; 2 Thess 2:8). Therefore, this “feast” has always been garnished with an eschatological perspective, or, a view toward the end times.
As has been seen, the Christian Year has an evolutionary history, and the Cycle of Light is no exception. The observance of Epiphany began early in the third century as a celebration of the baptism of Jesus, and is the oldest of the celebrations in this cycle. The feast is believed to have originated among the Gnostics, who regarded the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at baptism as the real entry of the Son of God into the world. The feast began to be observed liturgically towards the end of the fourth century, and had already refracted into more specific observances. In the East, the birth of Christ and the visit of the Magi were observed on December 25, while the baptism and first miracle of Christ were observed on January 6. In the West, however, the nativity alone was celebrated on December 25, generally observing some combination of the visit of the Magi, baptism and the first miracle on January 6. Since there was little centralization of the Church at that time, local congregations began to “adopt various annual festivals that were already being observed in other places.”
The reason for the East choosing January 6 as the date to observe Epiphany is not clear. Talley argues that it was arrived at by computation. Early Christians in Asia Minor had traditionally observed April 6 as the date of the crucifixion, and had attached the conception of Christ to this date as well, thereby putting the birth of Christ on January 6. Bradshaw also weighs in, explaining that other theories include the possibility of a “widespread pagan festival involving some form of divine epiphany on this day, in spite of the lack of explicit witness to its existence . . . the Christian feast emerged as a counter-attraction to it.” Today, Epiphany is most often celebrated as a day, rather than a season, and brings to an end of the Cycle of Light by “completing the rhythm of expectation and fulfillment that defines this period of time.”
The same vague speculation must also be done with the placement of the Nativity on December 25. The fact is that no one knows when Christ was born. Two hypotheses have gained popularity, however, and I will briefly present them. The “Calculation hypothesis” computes the date from March 25, a date accepted in the West as both the passion (death) and the conception of Jesus. This date is calculated from the belief that John the Baptizer was conceived on the Autumnal equinox, and was born on the Summer solstice (although there is no proof). Based on this date, Christ would have been conceived on the spring equinox (when Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant, according to Lk 1:26) and born on the Winter Solstice (December 25). This makes perfect sense to the third and fourth century mindset, that believed important and/or symbolic events always happen in conjunction with the natural world, especially the sun.
The second hypothesis is the “History of Religion” hypothesis, put forth first, Adam notes, by L. Duchesne. In this proposal, the nativity was set alongside the pre-existing Roman celebration of Natale Solis Invicti (return of the invincible sun – northern hemisphere) in order to “immunize Christians against the attraction of this pagan feast.” A parallel theory attributes Constantine with the establishment of the nativity celebration on this day of the sun, fueled as he was by his desire to unify the empire. This might explain the presence of Christmas at his old capital of Rome, but presents a doubt when one considers “the dual problem of Constantine’s limited presence in Rome and the evident absence of the festival of December 25 from the ferial calendar of Constantine’s new Christian capital during his lifetime.”
Then, as now, the implications of the incarnation were central to the celebration of the Nativity. The incarnation is the grand convergence of Time and Eternity, described for us in 1 John 1:2: “the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us.” Nativity commemorates “the appearing of the Eternal Word in our midst.” Christmas was originally a twelve-day feast, lasting from December 25 to January 5. Unfortunately, it became a season of much revelry, leading the Puritans of England to object to its observance. Once these Protestant Puritans came to America, they outlawed the celebration of Christmas completely, considering it both idolatrous, and a leftover of Roman Catholicism (Christ’s mass). It did not become a legal holiday in America until 1856.
The importance of the incarnation cannot be overstated. Leo, Bishop of Rome, saw Christmas as “not just a moving story but the starting point of our salvation.” God not only imputed eternal worth to Mankind by making him in His image, but He also elevated the significance of every human being by taking on human nature. The fact that God initiated a relationship with Mankind bids our attention to the amazing act of the incarnation. The Church’s celebration of Christmas, therefore, must be far more than a birthday party for baby Jesus. It must present the history and the mystery of the Christ event described in the great Kenosis passage of Philippians 2:1-11, where Jesus divests himself of his glory and takes on human form.
Like the Cycle of Life, the Cycle of Light has a season of preparation that leads into it. Advent comes from the word Adventus, meaning “coming or arrival,” and refers to the first visit of a new king or conqueror, or the enthronement of an emperor. The earliest mention of this feast is in 490 AD from Perpetuus of Tours, and references a 3-week fast. Initially, the time and length of Advent varied, but in 650 AD Gregory the Great established this season of preparation as consisting of the four Sundays before December 25. Contemporary Advent observances tend to focus more on telling the nativity story itself, but it has not always been so. Historically, the focus has been primarily on the second coming of Christ.
Liturgically (and historically), the Sunday themes were as follows:
· 1st Sunday = Second coming
· 2nd Sunday = Judgment and Promise
· 3rd Sunday = Rejoice! Consider the One who is to come.
· 4th Sunday = The birth of the Promised One.
Stookey says that Advent is a celebration of the “promise that Christ will bring an end to all that is contrary to the ways of God.” Since Advent is not a Biblically mandated season, Churches often feel free to adapt this season to their own culture and needs. Stookey offers one plea in this regard: “However it is achieved, worship during Advent should ever clearly and forcefully proclaim the fullness of the coming of Christ into our midst – future, past, and present.”
The Liturgical Year provides transitional Sundays into and out of the Cycle of Light. Christ-the-King Sunday is usually observed on the last Sunday of Ordinary time, leading into Advent. Baptism Sunday is the Sunday after Epiphany, and is in keeping with the traditional celebration of the baptism of Christ on Epiphany (January 6).
Observing the Church Year can be both a challenge and a blessing. The obvious challenge is to avoid ritualism and legalism, while at the same time connecting contemporary congregations to the history and legacy of those who have gone before. The blessing of the Christian Year lies in the possibility of shaping both worship and the worshiper. However it is done, the whole story of Christianity must be told, and told often, in order to live holy and authentic lives within the intersection of Time and Eternity.
-Adam, Adolf. The Liturgical Year. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1981.
-Bass, Dorothy, C. Receiving The Day. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2000.
-Bradshaw, Paul. Early Christian Worship. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996.
-Hickman, Saliers, Stookey, White. The New Handbook of the Christian Year. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992
-Hill, Andrew E., Enter His Courts with Praise!. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993.
-Johnson, Maxwell E. Between Memory and Hope, Readings on the Liturgical Year.
Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000.
-Martin, Ralph P. Worship In The Early Church. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.
-Sharp, Dan and Jack Van Marion, ed. A Course Reader, Part 1 & 2. Special Collections, Institute of Worship Studies, Florida Campus, 2006.
-Stookey, Laurence Hull. Calendar, Christ’s Time for the Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.
-Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991.
-Vogel, Dwight W. editor. Primary Sources of Liturgical Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000.
-Weber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Time. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004.
-Weber, Robert E. Rediscovering the Christian Feasts. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 1998
-Weber, Robert E. People of the Truth. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001.
-Weber, Robert E., ed. Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship: The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol. 2. Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.
-White, James F. Christian Worship in North America. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1997
-White, James F. Documents of Christian Worship: Descriptive and Interpretive
Resources. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.
-Wilde, James A. At That Time, Cycles and Seasons in the Life of a Christian. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1989. (Not read for this project; included for later reference).
-Wren, Brian. Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.
 Joyce Ann Zimmerman, “Paschal Mystery – Whose Mystery? A Post-Critical Methodological Reinterpretation”, Primary Sources of Liturgical Theology (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 305.
 Patricia Wilson-Kastner, Sacred Drama, A Spirituality of Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), 33, Special Collections, A Course Reader, Part 1 (Institute of Worship Studies, Florida Campus, 2006), 12.
 Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellaurer (Chicago and London: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984,1985, 1988): Vol. 1, 18, quoted in Zimmerman, “Paschal Mystery”, Primary Sources, 307.
 Robert f. Taft, “The Liturgical Year: Studies, Prospects, Reflections”, Between Memory and Hope, Readings on the Liturgical Year, Maxwell E. Johnson, ed. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 14.
 John F. Baldovin, “The Liturgical Year: Calendar for a Just Community”, Between Memory and Hope, Readings on the Liturgical Year, Maxwell E. Johnson, ed. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 434.
 Mark Searle, “Sunday: The Heart of the Liturgical Year”, Between Memory and Hope, Readings on the Liturgical Year, Maxwell E. Johnson, ed. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 59.