It is the Eighth day of Christmas, or Eight Maids a-Milking Day. I always felt sorry for the maid who didn’t have a swan to milk, while wondering how you can milk a swan that’s a-swimming. It is said that the secret methods of medieval milkmaids were lost to posterity during the French Revolution. On this day in 1773 the song “Amazing Grace” was first sung in a church service, although at the time it had the euphonious title of, “1 Chronicles 17:16-17.” How sweet the sound.
This is of course New Year’s Day, although it was not always so; throughout most of western Christendom the yeardometer ticked over on March 25, and in eastern Christendom on September 1, until sometime in the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries, depending on where you lived. The change is usually associated with Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585), sponsor of the research that led to the calendar named after him (Calendar XIII, or “Old 13” as it is now called), who had the sad misfortune to be baptized Ugo. Centuries later a crappy car would be named after him, but that’s not his fault.
Eastern Christians today mark the Circumcision of our Lord, in keeping with the 8-day “No Money Down!” waiting period prescribed by the Law of Moses (do the math). On this blessed day, St. Joseph and the Theotokos Mary presented our Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem, paid the two-bird fee, and had him circumcised, thus marking him as a member of the people of Israel. We have no carol about this event that tells us, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he made.” I’m not sure what that says.
In the East it is also the feast of St. Basil, compiler of St. Basil’s Liturgy, which is used to make Orthodox Christians feel particularly repentant during Lent. I have always wondered why St. John Chrysostom, whose title means “the Golden Throat,” gave the celebrant a (far) shorter anaphora to pray than did the wordy St. Basil, who has no such appellation. Perhaps this is the source of the aphorism “Silence is golden.”
In the West the feast of our Lord’s circumcision is known as “The Holy Name of Jesus” for various reasons (squeamishness cannot be altogether dismissed). Nobody calls it “Brismas.” It used to be celebrated on January 1, but things have changed. Then changed again. Then changed back. Nowadays January 1 is the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, which my sources claim was introduced in the Dark Ages, only to be eclipsed (unofficially) in the high Middle Ages by the celebration of our Lord’s circumcision, based on that pesky 8-day thing. The equation of January 1 with the Holy Name finally became official with the 1570 publication of the Tridentine Missal under Pope Pius V. (It is important to distinguish between the Tridentine Missal, which is a prayer book, and the Trident submarine, which fires missiles.)
Wait, did I say “finally”? Alas, the izmel has swung the other way, and in the massive calendar reorganization that was the Second Vatican Council, not only did the Church move guitar masses from never to every Sunday, it also moved the Feast of the Holy Name from January 1 to January 3, reinstating the Solemnity of Mary on January 1. The Solemnity is a holy day of obligation, which means Roman Catholics in good standing must attend mass, even if their New Year’s Eve celebrations have left them not standing so good.
Mary is of course the Mother of God, and those of us who know this sometimes tire of saying: Yes, we know, she’s not the mother of the Eternal Godhead. Calling her Theotokos (“birth-giver of God”) is a way of affirming that the child born of her was at the time (and still is, in fact) God incarnate. Calling St. Anne, Mary’s mother, “God’s Granny” is strictly colloquial and is not found in the services of the Church.
Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.