“But Father! But Father!”, some of you in Columbia Heights may be saying, “Isn’t Epiphany in, like, January or something?”
At the end of the liturgical year with the traditional Roman calendar, there are some oddities to counting the Sundays.
As we approach the end of another liturgical year, a strange thing happens in the Church’s traditional, pre-Conciliar calendar. After the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, the Sundays left over after Epiphany, way back after Christmas, are pulled out of the freezer, warmed up and served. And “left over” is not a flippant description. In the older Missale Romanum our Sunday is “Dominca quarta quae superfuit post Epiphaniam”. Superfuit is from super-sum, which the super Lewis & Short Latin Dictionary , indicates is “to be over and above, either as a remainder or as a superfluity”.
So how can Sundays be ‘left over’?” Here is what happened.
In structuring our liturgical calendar we Christians depend on the vagaries of the moon. The date of Easter each year is fixed according to when the spring full moon occurs. Since the moon isn’t always full on the same date, the date of Easter Sunday shifts. Lent, however, has a fixed length. Thus the beginning of Lent slides around, earlier or later depending on that spring full moon. At the other end of the equation, Epiphany (the real Epiphany) is a fixed date: 6 January. Since the beginning of Lent slides around, the time between Epiphany, which begins on 14 January, and Ash Wednesday and Septuagesima (three weeks before), is longer or shorter depending on when the moon is full in the spring.
There can be many as six Sundays between Epiphany and Septuagesima which can fall from 18 January to 22 February, that is from the 2nd until the 6th Sunday after Epiphany.
Therefore, when Lent begins earlier the texts for as many as four Sundays after Epiphany slated to be celebrated up to Septuagesima must be skipped. On the other end of the Lent/Easter cycle, Pentecost also shifts its date. Pentecost is always the same number of days after the movable Easter. The twenty-four Sundays allotted after Pentecost are not enough to get us all the way to the end of the liturgical year, back around to Advent. Depending on the date of the spring full moon, there can be a gap of a several Sundays between the 22nd after Pentecost and last Sunday before Advent.
Therefore, Holy Church uses those “movable” Sundays left over after Epiphany as fillers until the final Sunday of the year, which liturgically is always the 24th Sunday after Pentecost … even if it isn’t ordinally the 24th. So, at the end of the Church’s year, in the traditional calendar, we usually get left over Sundays.
In the newer, post-Conciliar calendar the shift in the moon also changes how many Sundays of “Ordinary Time” we can squeeze in after the Christmas season ends with the Baptism of the Lord (a mystery yanked away from the Feast of Epiphany). Again, due to the shifting dates of Pentecost some of the Sundays of Ordinary Time in the middle of the calendar are blotted out by the tail end of the Easter season.
At the end of the liturgical year in the newer calendar, the last Sunday is always fixed as the 34th Sunday of Ordinary Time, celebrated as the Solemnity of Christ the King. In the older calendar Christ the King is observed on the last Sunday of October.
In the older, traditional calendar we have not only the far more interesting Septuagesima and the pre-Lent Sundays, we also have the Seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost for what is called our tempus per annum… “time through the year”. In the post-Conciliar calendar we call the tempus per annum “Ordinary Time”. “Ordinary” refers to “order” rather than “ordinariness”. Perhaps it would be better to call it “Ordinal Time”.
The Novus Ordo’s “ordered” time is split into two unequal parts. An old clerical friend of mine, dear Harold – R.I.P – called them “Greater and Lesser ‘Meatloaf’”. I preferred the traditional reckoning. Whereas in the ordinary Novus Ordo calendar we just throw the unconsumed “meatloaf” Sundays away, in the Church’s extraordinary calendar we conserve the left over Sundays in the back of the liturgical ice-box and pull them out later if needed.
Either way, as is the case with many things preserved lovingly in the refrigerator for a long time, these Sundays are green… with hope, of course.