Many Catholics are surprised when they first learn that the celebration of Christmas came rather late, as feasts of Our Lord go. While it may have been observed in Egypt as early as the third century, the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord did not spread throughout the Christian world until the middle of the fourth century.
The early Christians considered the day of our physical birth into this world far less important than the day of our birth into eternal life — that is, the day of our death. While culturally, we Christians — like everyone else — now celebrate birthdays with great fanfare, our liturgical life still reflects this reality at the heart of our faith. Most saints’ feast days are celebrated on the date of their death (or the closest day to it, when there are conflicts with more important feasts), and we normally celebrate memorial Masses for our deceased loved ones on the date of their death, rather than of their birth.
Even now, the Church celebrates only three birthdays: the Nativity of Our Lord (Dec. 25), the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Sept. 8) and the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24). All three have something in common: They were born without original sin. (John the Baptist, the Church has traditionally taught, was cleansed of original sin in his mother’s womb when Mary visited Elizabeth and the baby leapt for joy.)
Reflecting on this history reminds us that our life on this earth is a preparation for our life after death. The things of this world are not simply less important than the reality of the next; they have meaning only insofar as they are oriented toward eternal life.
We find another reminder of this reality in the feast we celebrate this week. Unlike Christmas, the Epiphany of Our Lord was celebrated from the earliest days of the Church, first in the East and then universally. It originally commemorated the fourfold revelation of God to man: Christ’s baptism, when the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of God the Father is heard, declaring that Jesus is his Son; the wedding in Cana, the miracle that reveals Christ’s divinity; the Nativity, when the angels bear witness to Christ, and the shepherds, representing the people of Israel, bow down before him; and the visitation of the Magi, when Christ’s divinity is revealed to the gentiles — the other nations of the earth.
The coming of God into our world, with the promise that we, if we unite ourselves to him, may join him in heaven, is the great hope of all mankind. Anything that promises meaning in the things of this world disorients us, redirects us to a lesser goal.
While the celebration of the Epiphany of Our Lord is now transferred to the nearest Sunday in the United States, this year, the U.S. Congress will meet on Jan. 6, the traditional date of the feast, to count the electoral votes cast on Dec. 14 by each state’s members of the Electoral College and to declare the winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Given the legal and political challenges raised by President Donald Trump, many are concerned that Congress will not simply accept those electoral votes but challenge the results in at least some of the states. Others are hoping that will be the case, and I have seen many posts on social media — often from Catholics, who make up a good portion of my Facebook friends — declaring that, on Jan. 6, “all will be revealed.”
No matter what happens in Congress on that day, however, as Catholics we need to remember that all has already been revealed. God, the creator and savior of all, has made himself known to man. Every presidential election pales in importance compared with that reality.
No matter how the vote in Congress unfolds, those of us who have been baptized into Christ will not “win” or “lose.” Our only victory is in the Lord, who created us, loves us, revealed himself to us and calls us to unite ourselves to him eternally.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.