Between Epiphany and Lent: A Soft Point in the Liturgical Year

When I was a kid, I used to start counting down the days until Christmas already in July. It was, and still is, my favorite time of year. But it was always over too soon. On the morning of December 26, a youthful malaise would set in. The long, gray, West Michigan winters of my youth seemed to last until May, and sometimes I think they really did. One of the happiest discoveries of adulthood was that the 12 days of Christmas did not end on Christmas but began on Christmas. The celebration keeps going until Epiphany! So now, the onset of my winter malaise is postponed, at least for a couple of weeks.

This is the time of year for busy-ness and its cousin, distraction. It’s the time of the year for making and then quickly giving up on New Year’s resolutions. And, especially for those of us in the more northerly regions of the northern hemisphere, it’s often the time for seasonal affective disorder syndrome–whether diagnosed or not.

It is a kind of valley in the liturgical year. We have come down from the peaks of the winter holidays but the upward climb of Lent won’t begin for a while. There doesn’t seem to be anything going on in the valley. It is technically Ordinary Time, but it feels different from the expansive summer meadows of possibility that we associate with Ordinary Time between Pentecost and Advent.

Is there a way to conceive of this time of year positively instead of just an empty, “in between” time?

Soft Points in the Liturgy

One of the most important principles of liturgical history is the notion of “soft points.” Soft points are practical actions in a given liturgical rite, which, in the rite’s primitive form, took place without ceremony. Classic examples are the entrance into the church building, the transfer of the gifts, and the communion rite. As a liturgy develops, text, music, and ceremony rush in to fill the vacuum surrounding these seemingly naked action points.

With the addition of music and text, actions that previously had a purely utilitarian function suddenly become moments of rich significance. For example, in the Byzantine Rite, the transfer of gifts from point A to point B becomes the “Great Entrance.” The people sing the “Cherubic Hymn” as the clergy solemnly process through the church with the holy gifts up to the altar, imitating, according to the hymn, the angels bearing the offering to the heavenly altar.

Liturgists have, at times, disparaged these post hoc fillers as so much fluff–distractions from the essence of the rite. There something to this view. But I think we can give a more positive reading to the phenomenon. The things we do to make meaning out of soft points should not be condemned as simply inessential. They can rather be understood as opportunities for meaning-making that are vital to the worshipping community’s understanding and participation in the liturgical act.

What if we envisioned the “empty” period of time between Epiphany and Lent instead as a soft point, an opportunity for making meaning?

Making Meaning in the In Between

The period of time between Epiphany and Lent is not, of course, actually empty in the various liturgical traditions of Christianity. The Assyrian Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox churches keep the Fast of the Ninevites during this time. This three-day fast commemorates God’s merciful response to the repentance of the Ninevites in the book of Jonah. The fast probably originated during a plague and famine that struck Mesopotamia in the sixth century AD. It is still meaningful for Middle Eastern Christians today. Some have appropriated it as a way of responding to modern upheavals such as war and persecution.

In the Byzantine Rite, my home tradition, this time is filled with substance. January is loaded with commemorations of great saints and teachers, especially from the early church, as Adam DeVille has recently pointed out. We celebrate such holy women and men as Basil the Great, Seraphim of Sarov, and Genevieve of Paris––and that’s just the first three days of the month.

The Septuagesima and the other two pre-Lent Sundays were omitted in the reforms of Vatican II, but the Roman Catholic Church also celebrates many great saints during this time including many of those celebrated in the Byzantine Rite, as well as others like St Agnes (January 21) and St John Bosco (January 31).

And then, of course, there’s the Feast of Presentation/Candlemas, which is due for a revitalization. It seems to me that most of us have forgotten how to celebrate it.

These existing ways of marking the time between Epiphany and Lent leave plenty of room for context-specific meaning-making. There is no reason why we can’t adapt this period to the needs and desires of our communities with something that makes sense in each place, based on what is already there in our liturgical calendars.

This time of busyness and distraction, fatigue and stasis, calls out for “redeeming” (Eph. 5:16). Perhaps one the most meaningful ways to do so is to lean into the “in-betweenness,” and find in it a more substantive silence. Silence in liturgy is intentional silence. It does work. It transforms “in-betweenness” and “emptiness” into rest and regeneration. Speaking for myself, structured silence during this time of year would go a long way towards keeping focus, and remaining grounded in hope.

Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. His translation of Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, was released in 2021 by University of Notre Dame Press.

21 comments

  1. One way of thinking about the ‘soft period’ is to remember that Candlemas, 40 days after the Nativity of the Lord (as the Rite reminds us) is the termination of the Christmas/Epiphany season. It contains, after all, the narrative of Cana, the first revelation of Jesus’ ‘Glory.’ So Christmas, far from ending on the 25th December, much less on the 12th day, Epiphany, is prolonged until Candlemas.

    The Ambrosian Missal has some prefaces for the early Sundays ‘per annum’ which would be used at this time, which refer back to the Christmas Mystery. It is a pity we don’t use them.

    AG.

  2. What about the new day of the Sunday of the Word of God celebrated by some communities?

    Personally I think that any perceived soft spot at this time is filled by the only truly ecumenical event, taking place on the second Sunday in February.

  3. I liked the Episcopal practice of having “Sundays After Epiphany”/”Epiphanytide”, with it’s particular focus on Christ’s progressive self-revelation in the world. (The hymn “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” sums up the focus of the season to me.)

    1. I agree that Ordinary Time is not an inspirational title and that Epiphanytide better catches what is going on in the gospel selections of the period. There is a real progressive movement in them. What I would not want is the introduction of the Transfiguration as the Last Sunday Before Lent, a la Christ the King before Advent. The Roman Leader too art preserves the gospel sequence of three related episodes: the baptism, the temptations, and the transfiguration, all of which revolve around the title of Son of God. As have suggested before, the Second Sunday in Lent would be the most apt day for the Handing on of the Creed.

  4. Thank goodness for some “soft spots” in the liturgical calendar. These offer breathing space, and on a practical level they also are an opportunity for special rites which build up the community but don’t have a specific Sunday assigned to them.

    John’s mention of the Sunday of the Word of God was the first example that occurred to me. I think it was a great idea that the Vatican used this for the institution of lectors and catechists. The readings were perfect. In Malaysia they celebrate catechetical Sunday on the fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, and so commissioned catechists on the third Sunday, after a retreat at which all renewed their commitment.

    I’ve also recommended this period as a time to celebrate the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens (this presumes the year-round catechumenate) so that the catechumens will really have the full year of formation minimum that the rite recommends before they celebrate the Rite of Election the following year. In Ordinary Time, we can substitute one of the readings with one of those assigned for the ritual.

    It’s also a good time to welcome baptized candidates into the full communion of the Catholic Church — thus associating their journey with the discipleship themes that are abundant in Ordinary Time.

    1. When the whole year is festivals and festive seasons, is there any festival left? And Sunday itself loses its festal character.

      1. I wonder if church people who perform their most obvious labors on Sundays are less sensitive (except for how it may impinge on what they would like to see) to perceiving the erosion of Sunday as a festal day for many of their parishioners in the last 50 years in particular.

      2. Michael, I’m not sure I understand your comment.

        The institution of lectors and catechists, the rite of acceptance for catechumens, the rite of reception into full communion — these are change of status rituals. They’re not festivals.

      3. In reply to Rita Ferrone: The Christmas and Easter cycles are festal, centered around those feasts. We celebrate them as festivals, in contrast to the Sundays throughout the year. Some contrast is essential IMO to elevate the mood of the Church during festal seasons. That presupposes the periods of time when the celebration of Sunday is repeated with a sweet usualness. When I hear suggestions that the period of time between the Christmas and Easter cycles should be filled in by sequelae of Christmas or anticipation (by “gesimas”) of Lent, I feel like grieving for the primary character of Sundays, just ordinary Sundays.

      4. Michael, ok, so your comment is not in response to my comment, but is offered in response to the post or to something else in the thread. I don’t disagree with what you are saying, I just needed to clarify what this had to do with what I wrote. Nothing, evidently.

        To clarify: When you hit “reply” it makes it appear that you are replying to the specific comment under which you wrote your “reply.” At the bottom of the screen there is a box that says “Comment.” This indicates an independent comment on the post, rather than a reply to another person’s comment. Hope this helps.

    2. Full agreement with Rita here!

      Personally, I’m grateful when this “winter” Ordinary Time is longer (such as this year), so we can include other rites in the Sunday Mass: receptions into the church, anointing of the sick (so essential in the dead of winter in many places), perhaps recognition of and blessing of married couples around Valentine’s Day, etc etc etc.

      Especially this year, with synodal planning going on in most dioceses, this 7 week breather is so nice!

  5. The events of the theophany as well as the call of the first disciples are proclaimed in the Gospels these Sundays. Perhaps liturgical people benefit from a respite in a long string of green Sundays, but it’s possibly the best time for a parish to call new disciples and offer something intensive for those already committed. If liturgy leadership were itchy to do something, a prime time (weather permitting) to refine our craft. Skills at music and proclaiming the Scriptures. A time of retreat for parish ministries.

    For Sunday liturgy that call to discipleship might have relevance. Settings of New Testament canticles, especially Philippians 2 and those in Luke 1. Beatitudes, perhaps, on Sundays they are not proclaimed in the Word. I’ve long thought Matthew 11:25-30 needed a really outstanding musical setting. Psalms 19, 27, and 40 are fitting reflections on discipleship and our connection to the Word.

  6. Thanks for the reflection on the “soft” liturgical time, but again for those of us who live in the Southern Hemisphere we are certainly not climbing out of winter, but are immersed in the glare of the southern summer sun! Thus for us January is very much ‘holiday’ time and many people take annual leave. For that reason many parishes slow down their normal activities (outside of COVID times of course) and it is generally liturgically “lean” as many parish staff also take leave. Thus for us it is very much a “soft” time but driven by our climate more than anything else.

  7. I think the best solution is simply to count the Sundays as after Epiphany, as do the Episcopal Church, the Anglicans and Lutherans. It’s still a green, unadorned Sunday, but in connection with a Festival that gives the meaning of the different readings: the Revelation(s) of the Lord in many situations.

  8. I think that if you want to maintain and teach the centrality of Sunday, then subsuming sundays into ‘Ordinary Time’ is not a good way to do it. For starters the term ‘Ordinary Time,’ whatever its intended meaning, in normal use implies dullness and routine, neither of which applies to the weekly memorial of the Lord’s Rising from the Dead.

    One of my students said to me once that he thought that the liturgical colour for Ordinary Time should be grey, not green! I sympathise.

    At least the numbering of sundays in relation to feasts such as Pentecost and Epiphany does not have any of the connotations of ‘ordinariness.’ And also Pentecost and Epiphany are about Christ the light of the whole world and the Pentecostal mission of the Church.

    And I am sorry, but I really miss Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima …

    AG.

  9. These first 3 days of February are outstanding for us.
    February 1st is St Brigid, blessing and distribution of St Brigid crosses. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigid%27s_cross
    February 2nd is Candlemas, blessing and distribution of candles, procession.
    February 3rd is St Blaise, blessing of throats.
    Though with Covid and the frailty of the lady who used to make the crosses for us, we missed out this year and last year on Feb 1st, and on the Candlemas procession.

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