Baptism and Presentation of Our Lord

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Baptism and Presentation of Our Lord

ROME, 29 JAN. 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In the liturgy after Christmas, the Baptism of Our Lord precedes the feast of the Presentation. What is the reason for this order of the feasts? — C.T., Johannesburg, South Africa

A: The feast of the Presentation is linked to the Jewish rite of purification of the mother which was preformed according to Mosaic law 40 days after the birth of a male child (Leviticus 12:2-6).

According to the law, only the mother needed to be purified, but, as a firstborn son, Jesus needed to be redeemed (Exodus 13:11ff). Thus the feast of the Presentation is logically celebrated 40 days after Christmas.

The earliest information regarding the celebration of this feast comes from Egeria, a woman who described her pilgrimage to the Holy Land around the year 390. Although she makes no mention of the use of candles, she relates the sermon as being inspired by Simeon's phrase regarding Christ as "Light of the nations."

In this context it is easy to see how the use of torches and candles came to be used, and there is already clear evidence of their use some years later in Egypt (around 440) and in Rome between the years 450 and 457.

The history of the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is more complex.

The feast of the Epiphany, which means manifestation, was initiated among Eastern Christians. It celebrates three manifestations of Christ's divinity in one: his manifestation to the Magi, his baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding feast at Cana in which he performed his first miracle.

Even though the Roman-rite celebration of the Epiphany gives pride of place to Christ's manifestation to the three wise men, the prayers of the Mass and the divine office still have vestiges of the earlier, triple memorial.

In Rome, probably due to Byzantine influences, Our Lord's baptism, while not quite a feast, was commemorated in a special way on the octave of the Epiphany from the eighth century on. The principal offices used the same psalms as on Jan. 6, but the antiphons referred to the theme of Christ's baptism.

The octave of the Epiphany, along with many others, was suppressed by Pope John XXIII in 1960. But the same Holy Father decided that the pre-existing memorial of Christ's baptism should be given greater emphasis by transforming it into a special commemoration of the Lord celebrated on Jan. 13, the former octave of the Epiphany.

The post-Vatican II reform decided to locate this feast on the Sunday after the Epiphany, thus officially concluding Christmastide and inaugurating ordinary time.

Before John XXIII's reform, Christmastide ended on the Presentation. This feast remains as a kind of appendix to Christmas as is testified by some popular traditions such as not removing the Nativity scene until after Feb. 2 as is the practice in St. Peter's Square.

* * *

Follow-up: Baptism and Presentation of Our Lord [2-12-2008]

After our Jan. 29 column on the dates of celebration of the feasts of Christ's baptism and presentation, an attentive Illinois priest advised me regarding a small historical inaccuracy.

He writes: "It was actually in 1955 that the general decree 'Cum Nostra' of the Sacred Congregation of Rites suppressed all octaves except those of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. As a result, Jan. 13, the former octave of the Epiphany, became the commemoration of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, celebrated with the rank of a double major (according to the classification then in force). The texts of the Mass and office remained the same, though, until 1970 (SRC, 'Cum Nostra,' No. 16). Although the baptismal theme figures prominently in the Eastern liturgy of Epiphany and wasn't entirely absent from the Roman liturgy, there was no 'pre-existing memorial of Christ's baptism' as a distinct feast in the Roman rite before 1955. Pope John XXIII's motu proprio 'Rubricarum Instructum' in 1960 and the 1962 typical edition of the Roman Missal merely codified the changes that had been introduced earlier by Pope Pius XII."

The original question about the feasts also brought to mind another query from a Pennsylvania priest regarding this year's calendar.

The priest asked: "In 2008, All Saints' Day is a Saturday. In the United States, it is not a holy day of obligation that year. All Souls' is Sunday. The All Souls' commemoration replaces the regular Sunday Mass. What Mass is then celebrated on Saturday evening, November 1, 2008, the vigil Mass for Sunday? There is no vigil Mass for All Souls."

While All Saints' may not be a holy day of obligation, it is still a solemnity listed in the general calendar. It thus has precedence over the commemoration of the Faithful Departed, which is a celebration in a class of its own.

The Liturgy of the Hours is taken from All Saints', although where the custom exists of celebrating public vespers for the dead after the vespers of All Saints', this custom may be maintained. Likewise, when Nov. 2 falls on a Sunday, the Liturgy of the Hours is that of the current Sunday although it may be substituted by the office for the dead in public recitation.

If we may be guided by the indications offered in Rome's liturgical calendar, then all Masses offered on Nov. 1 would be those of All Saints'.

The usual indication of the Saturday evening Mass is missing, and the celebration of the commemoration of the Faithful Departed is celebrated only on Sunday, Nov. 2.

The calendar also suggests that even though this commemoration falls on a Sunday, in virtue of its unique character, the Glory and Creed are omitted.

Since All Saints' is not a day of obligation, and has all the characteristics of a Sunday, I believe that a diocese could decide that those who attend evening Mass on Saturday, Nov. 1, have fulfilled their Sunday obligation even though the Mass formulas are those of All Saints'.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field