About the Festival
From the sixth century of the Christian era, March 25, the Annunciation, was understood as the beginning of the Incarnation and the inauguration of the new age (see Dante, Paradiso 16:34-39) and was accepted throughout much of Christendom as the beginning of the year. In Germany, however, the year began with Christmas; in France and the Low Countries it began with Easter; the Orthodox Church, reflecting Jewish practice as it frequently does, begins the new church year on September 1.
The names of the months September, October, November, and December (seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth) preserve the prehistoric Roman practice of observing March 1 as New Year’s Day; September is the seventh month counting from the first month of March. March 1 was also the beginning of the year among the Franks until the eighth century, and also among the Turks and the Russians.
There was, nonetheless, an old and persistent tradition that recognized January 1 as New Year’s Day. In 153 B.C.E. the Roman consuls entered office on January 1, the beginning of the month immediately following the winter solstice, indicating that that date was being accepted by the Roman Empire as the beginning of the year. When Julius Caesar reorganized the Roman calendar in 46 B.C.E., the beginning of the year was set on January 1, and it was celebrated by the “saturnalia.”
The observance of January 1 as New Year’s Day was increasingly frequent from the thirteenth century under the influence of Roman law and later humanism, in France in 1563, in Scotland in 1600, in Russia in 1700. In 1582 Gregory XIII reformed the calendar and set the beginning of the year on January 1. The adoption of the Gregorian date spread slowly. It was not accepted in England and the American colonies until 1752.
In the pagan world New Year’s Day was a celebration in honor of Janus, the god who faces two directions, and the celebration was a time of widespread revelry and license. For some centuries, therefore, the Christian church gave no liturgical notice to the day whatever. “I see you have come here,” St. Augustine is reported to have said to the crowds in church on January 1, “as if we had a feast today.” When the church noted the day at all, it was kept as a day of fasting and penitence. Several early missals provided a mass for use on January 1 against idolatrous practices. “During these days when they revel,” Augustine declared, “we observe a fast in order to pray for them,” church attendance being seen as an antidote to participation in pagan revels. In a sermon for this day (no. 198), Augustine said, “Let them get drunk; you should fast. Let them rush to the theater; you should rush to church.” (Watch Night services on New Year’s Eve, popular especially among Methodists, are a modern equivalent.) The Second Council of Tours (567) prescribed penitential devotions modeled on the Lenten fast for the first three days of January in an effort to eliminate pagan practice. In the year 633, the Fourth Council of Toledo in Spain prescribed a strict fast and abstinence for January 1, and it became a day of such solemnity that “Alleluia” was omitted from the liturgy as it was during Lent. Throughout the church in these centuries there were repeated prohibitions against participation by Christians in the revels of the new year. The continued repetition of the prohibitions indicates that although the church opposed the celebration, the people continued their revels.
In the seventh century, however, probably under Pope Boniface IX (615), January 1 was made a church holiday, called simply “the Octave of the Lord,” the title in the Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries, in imitation of the eighth day of Easter and of the Epiphany. Since the celebration of the new year could not be suppressed, the church did as it has often done and transformed the pagan holiday into a church festival. The appointed place (the “station”) of the pope’s mass that day was the church of the St. Mary beyond the Tiber, the oldest church dedicated to the mother of the Lord; and so the day became connected with Mary, and the old Roman calendars call the day “The Feast of St. Mary.” It is in a sense, therefore, the oldest feast of Mary in the Western Church. celebrated on the eighth day after the birth of her Son. The Roman Catholic calendar echoes this ancient name and calls the day “Octave of Christmas: the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.”
The celebration of Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day after his birth began about the middle of the sixth century particularly in Gaul but also in Spain. The celebration is not mentioned in the Eastern Church before the eighth century; it became established in Rome after the ninth century. This newer commemoration soon overshadowed the Octave of Christmas and came to be combined with the Octave in the title of the day: “The Circumcision of Our Lord and the Octave of the Nativity.” In the middle ages, the day also came to be associated with devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, since the one-verse Gospel for the eighth day of Christmas, Luke 2:21, reported both the circumcision and the giving of the divinely chosen Name. In the fifteenth century John of Capistrano, Bernardine of Siena, and the Franciscans worked to spread the cult of the Holy Name of Jesus. In 1530 the Franciscan Order received permission to celebrate the Name of Jesus as a separate festival on January 14. The observance spread, and in 1721 Pope Innocent XIII fixed the Feast of the Holy Name on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany; in 1913 Pius X assigned the festival to the Sunday between January 1 and 6, or on January 2 if no Sunday occurred. That practice is now suppressed in the Roman Church, and propers are provided for a votive mass of the Holy Name which may be celebrated whenever convenient. Certain Eastern rites kept the celebration of the Holy Name on January 1. In late medieval practice in England, shown in the later forms of the Sarum rite, the feast of the Holy Name was observed on August 7, a day that still appears on certain Anglican calendars as “St. Saviour” (that is, the holy Savior), because in Hebrew the name Jesus means “savior,” as the angel explained to Joseph (Matt. 1:21).
In previous Anglican Prayer Books January 1 is called simply “The Circumcision of Christ”; in the 1979 Prayer Book the day is given a new designation, “The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” There had been objection in some quarters to the former title and particularly to the former collect, which, reflection St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:29, asked for “the true circumcision of the Spirit,” since the focus seemed to be on circumcision itself rather than circumcision as an event in the life of Christ. (See F. E. Brightman, quoted in Massey Shepherd, Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, [Oxford, 1950], 105-06.) In Christian devotion, circumcision as a rite of purification is taken to be a symbol of baptism, and the first bloodshed by Christ for the cleansing of his people. (In the church in Ethiopia, circumcision is performed between the third and eighth day after birth, before the child is baptized.)
Lutheran calendars retained the medieval association of the Circumcision and the Name of Jesus because of their biblical basis, and so the title reads in most Lutheran service books (for instance, The Church Book of 1868, The Common Service Book of 1918, The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941, the Service Book and Hymnal of 1958, the Lutheran Service Book of 2006). The Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), followed by Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), borrowed the name of the day in the American the Book of Common Prayer (the Holy Name of Jesus) and gives it in a simplified form: “The Name of Jesus.”
The office hymns for the Feast of the Holy Name derive from a long poem ascribed to Bernard of Clairvaux, Jesu dulcis memoria, and are still sung in English as “Jesus, the very thought of thee,” “O Jesus, king most wonderful.” and “Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts.” The fifteenth-century hymn Gloriosi salvatoris, translated by John Mason Neale and others as “To the Name of our salvation,” sung to the stirring tune Oriel, makes clear that devotion to the holy Name is devotion to Jesus, the Name being a synonym for Jesus himself, who for long generations lay hidden in God’s foreknowledge but now has been revealed to the world. The long-held secret, now made public, in our time can be boldly sung aloud. (The splendid hymn is an explication of Ephesians 3.)
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
See also: Holy Name of Jesus
From Worship by Evelyn Underhill
Eastern Catholicism…has…a technique…of a simple and beautiful kind, for the production and deepening of that simple, inclusive, and continuous act of communion with God, that humble prayer of the heart, which is the substance of its mystical worship. This technique, so simple that it is within the compass of the humblest worshipper, yet so penetrating that it can introduce those who use it faithfully to the deepest mysteries of the contemplative life, consists in the unremitting inward repetition of the Holy Name of God; usually in the form of the so-called “Jesus prayer”—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me’.” This prayer has a unique place in the spiritual life of Orthodoxy. All monastic rules of devotion, and spiritual direction given by monks to the pious laity, aim at its development. It carries the simple and childlike appeal of the devout peasant, and the continuous self-acting aspiration of the great contemplative.
It can, when needful, replace the Divine Office and all other prayers; for it is of universal validity. The power of this prayer does not reside in its content, which is simple and clear (it is the prayer of the publican) but in the holy Name of Jesus. The ascetics testify that in this Name there resides the power of the Presence of God. Not only is God invoked in it, but He is already present in the invocation…thus the Name of Jesus present in the human heart communicates to it the power of that deification which the Redeemer has bestowed on us.…The light of the Name of Jesus pours through the heart, to irradiate the universe, a foretaste of that final transfiguration in which God shall be all in all.
Excerpts from Worship by Evelyn Underhill, copyright, 1936 by Harper & Brothers. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers and Hodder & Stoughton.
Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy Name of Jesus to be a sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.
Cambridge Bede Book, 1936; rev. 1979, BCP; rev. in LBW, ELW.
Readings: Numbers 6:22-27 [RCL] or Exodus 34:1-8; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 [RCL] or Philippians 2:9-13; Luke 2:15-21
Hymn of the Day: “To the Name of our salvation” (H82 248, 249; CSB 36); “O Jesus, joy of loving hearts” (LBW 356, ELW 658)
Prayers: For a deeper devotion to our Lord and a greater reliance on his saving power; For the cleansing of God’s people from sin; For reverence for the holy name of Jesus; For God’s blessing on the new year.
Also on January 1
New Year’s Day as such has no liturgical significance, but the church’s continuing struggle to keep the celebration of the secular new year out of its own distinctive year, the first day of which is the First Sunday in Advent, has proved to be futile. In Germany after the Reformation the new year was given a certain liturgical recognition (see Bach’s Christmas Oratorio). In North America the 1868 Lutheran Church Book provided a collect for the New Year translated from the 1695 Ober-Lausitz Agenda, which itself derived from the Austrian order of 1571:
Almighty and everlasting God, from whom cometh down every good and perfect gift: We give thanks for all thy benefits, temporal and spiritual, bestowed upon us in the year past, and we beseech thee of thy goodness, grant us a favorable and joyful year, defend us from all dangers and adversities, and send upon us the fullness of thy blessing; through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.
The collect was continued in the 1918 Common Service Book, the 1941 Lutheran Hymnal, and the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal. The 1928 Proposed English Book of Common Prayer provided a similar collect for the new year. The present Roman Sacramentary provides for a mass At the Beginning of the New Year. The Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), the Lutheran Service Book (2006), and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) all provide propers for New Year’s Eve, but these are not listed under the church year but rather under “Occasions.”