Although many of you have been here together in Church since the start of the new secular year, this is my first time to be with you as we gather, so I want to wish you a happy new year. I do pray that the year ahead for us will be one of deep joy as we follow in the footsteps of our Blessed Lord together as his Body.
It is – in some ways – rather strange that we give such significance to the turning over of the calendar into a new year: after all, people say, it is just another day. But the new year does nevertheless give us the opportunity (just as the start of the Christian year does at the beginning of Advent) whether we do it with parties and fireworks, or through quiet reflection and an early night, to have the sense that we are starting a new stage on our journey through life, and to celebrate all that has been in the previous year.
Just as the Christian year punctuates and differentiates between the various seasons of our year – through Epiphany to Lent and Easter, and Pentecost and so on – so the secular year provides us with other opportunities alongside the New Year for us to stop and give thanks. We give thanks for birthdays (we have celebrated two of those in the Rectory household in the last few days). In the last few days Robert and Kirsten Copas, who worship with us in the Petrus Community, have celebrated the birth of their third child, their second son James Robert, and Aaron and Michelle Ryder celebrated the birth of Lincoln Keith, the first baby to be born in Maitland in the New Year and we look forward to celebrating their birthdays with them in the years to come. During the year we give thanks for wedding anniversaries, and we remember our beloved dead on the anniversary of their deaths. This is how we choose to punctuate our lives.
In our Christian year there are two great celebrations, around which the rest of the year is structured. The celebration of Easter – Our Lord’s passing from death to life, which we look forward to in a few months time, and the celebration of Christmas – his coming amongst us. It is from the dating of Easter, which of course moves each year with the full moon, that we date the season of Lent that comes before it, and the great celebrations of Ascension and Pentecost that follow after it.
Given that these two celebrations are so central to our life as Christians, and the way that we order our year, I wonder if you have every thought about how the dates for Christmas and Easter have come about?
The date for Easter is the easier of the two to explain, even though it is a date that changes every year. Easter is always the first full moon that follows the Pascha full moon. That dating seeks to keep Easter in close proximity to the date of the Jewish Passover, which is itself determined by the calendar of the moon.
But what about the date of Christmas? The one thing that we know is that we do not know from the Scriptures or from any other concrete evidence when Jesus was born. In fact for at least 100 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is probable that Christians weren’t really interested in it.
That may seem strange to us. Robert and Kirsten’s new young son was born on 31st December, Aaron and Michelle’s new son was born on 1st January and those will be defining dates in their lives for ever, just as our own birthdays, or the birthdays of our children and grandchildren are for us. But in the world today there are probably more people who do not know when they were born, than people who do. It sounds a bit odd, but it is true.
I remember when I was co-ordinating ministries in the Diocese of Perth amongst Sudanese refugees there, for some reason I needed to see the documentation of the Sudanese clergy. None of them had birth certificates, but they all had documentation that they had completed for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. As I looked at the documentation I realised that they had all been born on the first of January. Not knowing the date on which they had been born, they simply guessed.
There was a variation on that in the life of the Early Church. A belief developed amongst Christians in the first centuries that Holy people (Saints) were conceived and died on the same date, a kind of completion of God’s work of creation and re-creation happening together on the same date.
So not knowing the date on which a holy person had been conceived let alone born, but knowing the date on which they had been martyred, for example, the presumption was made by the Church that the date of their conception and the date of their death were the same date. That is what happened in the thinking about Jesus’ conception as well. There was a strong belief that Jesus had died on 25th March, and certainly given that he died at the Passover, we can be sure that Good Friday occurred within some days of that date.
That is why we celebrate the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary on 25th March. The date that the early Church believed that Jesus hung on the cross, is the same date that we celebrate the angel visiting his Mother to say that she has conceived a child, who will be ‘Emmanuel’. Beginning in the Fourth Century, Christians embraced the idea that if Jesus was conceived and died on 25th March he must have been born on 25th December, nine months later.
Saint Augustine, in his text On the Trinity describes the belief in this way: “Jesus is believed to have been conceived on the 25th March, upon which day also he suffered [on the Cross]; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried… [and therefore] he was born, according to tradition, upon 25th December.”
There you have it: creation and redemption are always bound together in the life of Jesus. There is an important point theological point in all of this. For Christians, everything is dependent upon Easter. It is through Easter that we can believe that just as Jesus has broken through the chains of death, we will also be raised with him. It is even through Easter that the date of our Christmas celebrations came to be determined.
Today as we gather for worship in the midst of this Season of Epiphany, as we celebrate the light that has been made manifest in the world through Jesus, we commemorate his baptism by Saint John the Forerunner in the River Jordan, and we celebrate our own baptisms into his life, death and resurrection.
Now I have said all of this today, because there has been a long tradition in the history of the Church that at the beginning of the Season of Epiphany the date of Easter and the feasts that revolve around it are announced by the priest to his congregations. For many hundreds of years, at the beginning of this Season of Epiphany the Priest would announce to his congregations the various dates of the seasons that were to come.
It was called the ‘Epiphany Proclamation of Easter’, and it was sung by the priest to announce the date of Easter and the feasts and fasts that were dependent upon Easter to people who didn’t (as we do) have access to calendars and diaries. This is an English translation of the Proclamation:
Dear brothers and sisters, the glory of the Lord has shone upon us, and shall ever be manifest among us, until the day of his return.
Through the rhythms of times and seasons let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation.
Let us recall the year’s culmination, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial, and his rising celebrated between the evening of the thirteenth day of April and the evening of the fifteenth day of April, Easter Day being on the sixteenth day of April.
Each Easter — as on each Sunday — the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death. From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy.
Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, will occur on the first day of March. The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the twenty-eighth day of May. Pentecost, joyful conclusion of the season of Easter, will be celebrated on the fourth day of June. And, this year the First Sunday of Advent will be on the third day of December.
Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the Passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy Mother of God, in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed.
To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise, for ever and ever. Amen.
That is the Epiphany Proclamation of Easter. Friends, I look forward to journeying with you through all that God, in his gracious mercy, has in store for us in the coming months.