Obligations and the Incarnation

From the very beginnings of Christianity, the faithful have been abundantly blessed by the cycles of feast and fast days. From the great Holy Day of the Lord’s Resurrection, to the “little Easters” on each Sunday, to the celebrations of the triumphs of the martyrs, confessors, and virgins, the Church is enriched beyond measure by the graces of a God who began his public ministry on earth on the joyous occasion of a wedding. Considered in this way, feasts should not be looked at as onerous obligations, but rather as moments for the celebration of Christian culture, to be observed with rest, worship, and merriment, but also with sober and penitential preparation.

With that said though, at the end of this year, Christmas and New Year’s will fall on Thursdays, while the Immaculate Conception will be on a Monday, leading to no less than seven days of obligatory Mass attendance in a 25 day period. Let me begin by stating that Mass attendance is a sublime privilege and, insofar as we are able, there is nothing more beneficial to the spiritual life than frequent attendance at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, along with Holy Communion. The mysteries that we celebrate on those days are beautiful and central to our faith, particularly the first two: The Immaculate Conception and the Feast of the Nativity of Christ.

When added to the final holy day, the Solemnity of the Mother of God on 1 January, the obligations for Christian families can become onerous. The end of the year is a time of significant travel, in a period of worsening weather, and at the beginning of the peak of the period for significant contagious diseases. Now I am certainly not a partisan of lowering the bar for the Christian life. For example I would love to see the US Bishops follow the lead of England in imposing again Friday abstinence, in order to reinforce Catholic identity and an atmosphere of communal penitence. Neither do I like the transference of an obligation for a feast that falls on a Monday or Saturday (or the particular incongruity of Ascension Thursday Sunday). Rather I am acknowledging that the historical tradition of the Roman Church has been one of toleration for human imperfections, a rejection of rigorism and — insofar as is permissible — a motherly tolerance of human limitations amid the vicissitudes of this life. The Church has proved time and again — against Tertullian, against Novatian, against the Jansenists — that she is a merciful mother.

In light of this, it might be a prudent and compassionate decision on the part of the USCCB to remove the obligation of Mass attendance on 1 January. In the first place, of the many Marian feasts of the year, the feast of Mary the Mother of God is an exceptionally new one, only being established by Pius XI on 11 October 1931, to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the definition of the Theotokos (“Mother of God”) at the 3rd Ecumenical Council of Ephesus. After the promulgation of the Novus Ordo in 1969, the feast was moved to 1 January so, in reality, its place in the calendar is only 45 years old. In spite of the beautiful nature of this feast, the fact remains that there are many traditional Marian feasts stretching back into the fourth and fifth centuries.

I do not, however, propose eliminating a Marian day of obligation, but rather transferring it to a new day, one which has been historically underappreciated, and which – in light of the pro-life movement – could be a significant grace-filled opportunity for the Church. The obligation of attendance on 1 January should be shifted to the ancient feast of the Annunciation, or the Conception of Christ, on 25 March. Indeed in the medieval period this was New Year’s day, for on this day the Son of God entered and changed human history forever. According to some ancient traditions, March 25 was also the day of the creation of the world, and also of the crucifixion. Clearly this was seen by our forefathers in the faith as a critical moment of grace. (Note: The fact that the Annunciation is not included in the list of Universal holy days in Canon 1246 is not an impediment, since other nations – like Germany – have implemented some holy days of obligation not included in that canon, such as Easter Monday, and St. Stephen’s day).

How much would the exaltation of this feast reinforce the pro-life movement! By a celebration of the Conception of the Lord we would tie the conception of each new human to the incarnational and nuptial mystery of the Annunciation. Mary’s “yes” would be celebrated by all Catholics, in the context of a reaffirmation of the Incarnational nature of Christianity. 1 January is not really tied to a specific event. 25 March is tied to THE event in human history, the coming of God to earth. Too often we are content to celebrate the Nativity as the feast of the Incarnation. Christmas is simply the appearance of Christ to the world, a proto-Epiphany if you will. By emphasizing the Conception of Christ we reinforce his actual coming into human history, further underscoring his real humanity from the moment of Mary’s fiat. Perhaps most intriguingly, the exalting of this feast may aid theological development. Just as the ancient Feast of the Conception of Mary helped to advance the ultimate definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, the solemnization of this feast could speed the growing theological and scientific consensus of ensoulment at the moment of conception.

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More practically the Church would receive the gift of a respite from the hard penance of the Lenten season, by the celebration of the Incarnation in the midst of the earthly pilgrimage of penitence. The white and gold vestments of the feast, with the Gloria ringing out during the liturgy is a powerful symbol of the Incarnation in the midst of Lenten sobriety. We also have the opportunity to revive the custom of 25 March being a real Catholic Mothers’ Day (as opposed to the one manufactured by Hallmark in the 1920s).  For just as the 19 March feast of St. Joseph can be celebrated as a Catholic Fathers’ Day, so can the Annunciation call to mind the centrality of motherhood in human history. Finally a transfer of obligation from 1 January would have the effect of aligning the calendars of the two forms of the Roman Rite. The 1 January obligation means that Catholics who attend the Extraordinary form are fulfilling the obligation of the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God by attending the mass of the feast of the Circumcision, which is an odd situation. The feast of the Circumcision is important no doubt (for it is the first time Christ shed blood), but the universal feast of the Epiphany would be more appropriate than 1 January. 25 March is the Annunciation in both calendars, so all Latin rite Catholics would be worshipping on the same feast, along with our Eastern Catholic brethren who hold the Annunciation in such a high esteem that it is wholly non-transferable, even when it occurs during the Triduum. Finally, attendance on 25 March would also reinforce the ancient custom of kneeling at the Incarnational passage of the Creed.  Just as is done in the Extraordinary Form, the two times a year we kneel in the Ordinary form are Christmas and the Annunciation. This is done to reinforce and commemorate our belief in the descent of Christ from heaven to earth.

The creation of such an obligation would have the effect of mercifully lessening burdens on families and our overwrought priests on 1 January, while simultaneously reinforcing the Catholic insistence on Incarnation and its intimate relation to the preciousness of human motherhood, to deepening our devotion to our Holy Mother, the Theotokos, and to underscoring the dignity of all human life from the moment of conception. In the end, such a transference would be a gift of great measure to the Church.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
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  • K.G. Smith

    Great article and suggestion on making the Annunciation feast of Christ’s Conception/Incarnation a holy day of obligation — if we remember that March 25th is 9 months before Christmas we would always understand what we were celebrating — knowing the old names for the feast — Festum Incarnationis and Conceptio Christi helps as well. Read more about the Annunciation as Day of the Unborn Child celebrated officially in many nations and promoted in the U.S. by the KofC at http://www.DayOfTheUnbornChild.com