When I was a kid, I used to start counting down the days until Christmas already in July. It was, and still is, my favorite time of year. But it was always over too soon. On the morning of December 26, a youthful malaise would set in. The long, gray, West Michigan winters of my youth seemed to last until May, and sometimes I think they really did. One of the happiest discoveries of adulthood was that the 12 days of Christmas did not end on Christmas but began on Christmas. The celebration keeps going until Epiphany! So now, the onset of my winter malaise is postponed, at least for a couple of weeks.
This is the time of year for busy-ness and its cousin, distraction. It’s the time of the year for making and then quickly giving up on New Year’s resolutions. And, especially for those of us in the more northerly regions of the northern hemisphere, it’s often the time for seasonal affective disorder syndrome–whether diagnosed or not.
It is a kind of valley in the liturgical year. We have come down from the peaks of the winter holidays but the upward climb of Lent won’t begin for a while. There doesn’t seem to be anything going on in the valley. It is technically Ordinary Time, but it feels different from the expansive summer meadows of possibility that we associate with Ordinary Time between Pentecost and Advent.
Is there a way to conceive of this time of year positively instead of just an empty, “in between” time?
Soft Points in the Liturgy
One of the most important principles of liturgical history is the notion of “soft points.” Soft points are practical actions in a given liturgical rite, which, in the rite’s primitive form, took place without ceremony. Classic examples are the entrance into the church building, the transfer of the gifts, and the communion rite. As a liturgy develops, text, music, and ceremony rush in to fill the vacuum surrounding these seemingly naked action points.
With the addition of music and text, actions that previously had a purely utilitarian function suddenly become moments of rich significance. For example, in the Byzantine Rite, the transfer of gifts from point A to point B becomes the “Great Entrance.” The people sing the “Cherubic Hymn” as the clergy solemnly process through the church with the holy gifts up to the altar, imitating, according to the hymn, the angels bearing the offering to the heavenly altar.
Liturgists have, at times, disparaged these post hoc fillers as so much fluff–distractions from the essence of the rite. There something to this view. But I think we can give a more positive reading to the phenomenon. The things we do to make meaning out of soft points should not be condemned as simply inessential. They can rather be understood as opportunities for meaning-making that are vital to the worshipping community’s understanding and participation in the liturgical act.
What if we envisioned the “empty” period of time between Epiphany and Lent instead as a soft point, an opportunity for making meaning?
Making Meaning in the In Between
The period of time between Epiphany and Lent is not, of course, actually empty in the various liturgical traditions of Christianity. The Assyrian Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox churches keep the Fast of the Ninevites during this time. This three-day fast commemorates God’s merciful response to the repentance of the Ninevites in the book of Jonah. The fast probably originated during a plague and famine that struck Mesopotamia in the sixth century AD. It is still meaningful for Middle Eastern Christians today. Some have appropriated it as a way of responding to modern upheavals such as war and persecution.
In the Byzantine Rite, my home tradition, this time is filled with substance. January is loaded with commemorations of great saints and teachers, especially from the early church, as Adam DeVille has recently pointed out. We celebrate such holy women and men as Basil the Great, Seraphim of Sarov, and Genevieve of Paris––and that’s just the first three days of the month.
The Septuagesima and the other two pre-Lent Sundays were omitted in the reforms of Vatican II, but the Roman Catholic Church also celebrates many great saints during this time including many of those celebrated in the Byzantine Rite, as well as others like St Agnes (January 21) and St John Bosco (January 31).
And then, of course, there’s the Feast of Presentation/Candlemas, which is due for a revitalization. It seems to me that most of us have forgotten how to celebrate it.
These existing ways of marking the time between Epiphany and Lent leave plenty of room for context-specific meaning-making. There is no reason why we can’t adapt this period to the needs and desires of our communities with something that makes sense in each place, based on what is already there in our liturgical calendars.
This time of busyness and distraction, fatigue and stasis, calls out for “redeeming” (Eph. 5:16). Perhaps one the most meaningful ways to do so is to lean into the “in-betweenness,” and find in it a more substantive silence. Silence in liturgy is intentional silence. It does work. It transforms “in-betweenness” and “emptiness” into rest and regeneration. Speaking for myself, structured silence during this time of year would go a long way towards keeping focus, and remaining grounded in hope.
Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. His translation of Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, was released in 2021 by University of Notre Dame Press.