Penance and Epiphany on Friday: Wherein Fr. Z rants

I had a note about the obligation to do Friday penance (usually through abstinence) on the Friday in the Octave of Christmas. HERE. Yes, we were obliged to do penance… except where we weren’t.  The reason is that the days of the Christmas Octave are Feasts and not Solemnities (as they are during the Easter Octave). In an twist of irony one must still do Friday penance on Feasts.

In any event, a priest friend in England sent me this:


I love that.  The bishops moved the obligation to participate at Mass on Epiphany to Sunday… in itself a day of obligation.

So, in the Novus Ordo calendar, Epiphany, one of the most ancient feasts Holy Mother Church has celebrated in both East and West since her earliest centuries, one of the most significant and liturgically supercharged we have, one of the most beautiful and theologically rich, which has always fallen on the twelfth day after the Nativity of the Lord (which was a lesser feast in days of yore), so fixed in the calendar that it was known as Twelfth Night, is cavalierly shifted to the Sunday… thus eliminating it from the minds and hearts of most Catholics, denying them the opportunity and the need to take stock of how they live their Faith on days other than Sunday, and weakening by that much more our Catholic identity.

And to think that bishops do this.  Bishops.

Is it any wonder that….


His dictis, start thinking about how you might observe Epiphany… including going to Holy Mass in the Extraordinary Form, which honors the mysteries of the Lord’s divine manifestation on 6 January.

Eastern Catholics have some lovely customs.

In the Latin West, on the Vigil of Epiphany, Epiphany Water may be blessed.  We can blessed frankincense (I bought 10 bags against the day), gold (I didn’t buy so much of that, but I hope you will send me a lot), and chalk, for the use in the special blessing of houses and dwellings.  Also, on Epiphany there is the Noveritis (“Let y’all know”), the liturgical proclamation of the movable feasts, especially Easter, for the year.

Let’s have a look at an seasonally appropriate image by the mighty Giotto.

What do you see?


This hails from about 1320.  It’s a panel from a series on the life of Christ. Note the three defined levels. Angels hover, and one of the shepherds – and his dog – are listening to the message. (I wonder if the angel is telling the shepherd to “Shut up with the bagpipe, already!) Another angel hangs out on the roof to adore the Word made flesh. The panel must have been cut at the top, because angels are doing something with something above. The stable is articulated, with good perspective. And there’s the star. It has a little tail, like a comet, so we can tell that it’s been moving around and guiding the Magi. The moment is not static. It is an action shot. The foremost king, has handed off his gift to Joseph. And, crown off – BAM- he kneels, starting the ram. He is in the enraptured act of of picking up the Child. His eyes are rivited. Mary looks to Joseph with clear concern on her face. Joseph, gift in his far, left hand, extends his right hand as if to say, “Hey, wait a second!” The second king, who has gifts in each hand, has cocked is head at the act of his colleague: “Whoa!”

On second thought, perhaps Mary’s furrowed brow and body tension is due to that damn bagpipe, which is pointed right at her.

No, she’s worried about the Child and that bizarre guy whose grabbing Him out of the manger.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Our Catholic Identity, Wherein Fr. Z Rants and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. teomatteo says:

    I like how the kneeling king has removed his crown and placed it at Our Lords feet as it were.

  2. polycarped says:

    It’s bad enough that the Bishops have messed around with the calendar but to misuse an apostrophe as they have just rubs salt into the wounds.

  3. Peter in Canberra says:

    In Australia, land of convicts and kangaroos, I think the Epiphany has been transferred to the Sunday for as long as I can remember, and I am over 50 [when my accurate remembrances of this type of liturgical detail begins is a matter of conjecture >:-o]. It was certainly later in life that the linkage between Epiphany and the 12 days of Christmas really became apparent to me.
    But yes, our bishops, doubtless in their collegial conference, did this. Each time a holy day disappeared there was the usual appeal to a pastoral approach.
    Similarly Ascension and Corpus Christi have been transferred to the Sunday for decades.
    We have only two Holy Days of Obligation – Christmas and Assumption, also for decades now. For a time if the Assumption fell on a Friday, Saturday or Monday, it was observed on the Sunday. Thankfully that madness has been scrapped.
    All Saints as a holy day disappeared about 20 years ago I think. I forget when 1 January ceased to be of obligation.
    After all, it is so hard in this age of motor conveyances for people to get to Mass when it isn’t a Sunday …
    interestingly, if you look at the Wikipedia listing of Holy Days you will find that only a handful have the ten from the Code, and guess what? Two of those countries are predominantly Muslim: Lebanon and Indonesia. Both countries where intolerance to Christians extends, on occasion, to violence and lethal force.

  4. Peter in Canberra says:

    ps – I got it wrong about the Assumption I think – I believe if it fell on a Friday, Saturday or a Monday, the feast was still observed but without obligation.

  5. Peter in Canberra says:

    pps – is this all a manifestation of the cultural acceptance of the protestant notion of separation of Church and state? External religion is something you only do on Sundays, beyond then it interferes with the secular polity. And noting the cultural and historical linkage between protestantism and capitalism ie any day that the workers might have to be dispensed from working impacts the pursuit of Mammon.

  6. Moro says:

    Things like this remind me of George Weigel’s piece on having more holy days, not fewer. More and more I agree with him whole heartedly. That doesn’t mean we can’t observe them ourselves. The article I referenced is below:

  7. Jonathan Marshall says:

    Please, please, PLEASE bishops of England and Wales – can we have our Holy Days back?
    It’s bad enough that most of the Catholic world will celebrate the Epiphany next Friday, but even the Protestants will get the date right – whilst we have to wait for Sunday. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  8. ChesterFrank says:

    It is too bad that Epiphany is no longer on its proper day. More of those non Sunday days of obligation are needed to build back that Catholic identity, and governments and employers would have to acknowledge those “days of religious significance.” In other words Catholic politician’s could no longer brush Catholic’s aside. They would have to recognize those religious practice’s and obligation’s. I also wonder that Friday obligation to do penance during the Christmas octave is never mentioned in either the bulletin or from the pulpit? Polycarped: I never really understood how to use an apostrophe.

  9. AvantiBev says:

    As a wise and beautiful Italiana American (hat tip Justice Sotomayer) I hope this insane feast day switch does not happen in Italy. Poor La Befana will be confused about when to deliver deliverthe presents to the ragazzi!

  10. pelerin says:

    It has got to the stage now when even Catholic diaries are confused!

    I have noticed that my parish diary for this year gives the following under ‘Holydays of Obligation’ :

    ‘Assumption – Sunday August 13th England and Wales’ yet in the body of the diary the 15th is given as the Feast of the Assumption.

    There is also a double entry for the Feast Day the second one giving the 15th. Confusion all round!

  11. jameeka says:

    What a marvelous painting.
    I looked at the more detailed photo on the Met museum website, and the second King appears to have a single horn of oil. Not sure which pot is the frankincense and which is the myrrh. I enjoy your commentary, Father Z. The scene seems filled with awe and yet foreboding….especially the furrowed brow and the horns of the cow just touching the halo of Baby Jesus.

  12. spock says:

    I think I will instead celebrate Theophany with our Eastern Catholic brethren.

    The Easterns don’t move diddly. A feast day is a feast day is a feast day, at least in my experience.

  13. FRROJO says:

    I will be celebrating the Extraordinary For for the Traditional Feast of the Epiphany.

    Just a side note: I am a newly ordained priest serving in rural West Texas. It should not surprising that Texas has a HUGE hispanic population. The “Día de los Reyes Magos” is a celebration that parallels Christmas for many in our parish, and I have had a few of my Spanish-speaking parishioners comment that they will be at the Extraordinary Form Mass this Friday. Guess I am responding to the pastoral need of my faithful.

    Hagan Lio!

  14. SenexCalvus says:

    The transference of Holy Days to Sundays is but another tactic in the theological battle to reduce Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of the World, to Jesus of Nazareth, Ethical Teacher and All-Around Nice Guy. The epiphany of Christ’s Divinity, whether in the Adoration of the Magi or at the Baptism of the Lord, which figure equally in the Feast’s history, is an inconvenient truth that the modernists now cleverly hide away on a Sunday, where one is less likely to be awakened to it.

    Regrettably, the replacement of the Circumcision with Mary, Mother of God, was made for the same reason. The symbolism of the former is a mirror image of that of Good Friday: the Infant is subjected to the Law through the shedding of His Blood, just as He will later free us from the Law through the shedding of His Blood.

    In the unreconstructed calendar, the feasts of the Christmas Season were already preparing us for the Paschal Mysteries. But now the myrrh is safely tucked away from sight, and the Blood of the Circumcision has been forgotten entirely. (I suspect the Feasts of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents were retained because they can be explained in terms of systemic injustice and oppression without recourse to a “high” Christology.) The liturgical calendar is, I’m afraid, a front on which the Protestantizers continue to make advances.

  15. Imrahil says:

    With all due respect, and before we’re getting that dangerous weapon called “epiky” out of the security vault…

    I should disagree on the legal Interpretation.

    the law says that the Friday obligation does not apply on solemnities.

    There is no specific law I am aware of that would legislate explicitly that the Novus Ordo ranking applies to all Latin Catholics in this regard. The law that it doesn’t say “new rite solemnity”.

    Now note that it is universally acknowledged that the words “solemnity” and “first-class feast”, “feast [liturgical rank]” and “second-class feast” translate 1:1 into each other.

    Note further that while law says whether you are an Eastern or a Latin Catholic, and maybe residence decides whether you are an Ambrosian Catholic (if you live in Milan, etc.), the colloquially so-called Old Rite is the Extraordinary Form of a rite belonging to the entire Latin Church.

    And note further the Canons 14 and 18 which say that in case of a doubt, the less obliging interpretation obliges.


    a Latin Catholic who attends the Extraordinary Form, and does so for the solemnity a.k.a. first-class feast of Epiphany, is on the safe side to be free of the Friday penance.

    [Because it’s the liturgical rank that decides here. He would not be on the safe side on St. Stephen’s Day if that’s on a Friday, even though it be a public and obligatory holiday and even though the law before 1983 dispensed on obligatory holidays. St. Stephen is merely a second-class-feast, and the old Code, other than the old Rite, has been abolished.]

  16. Nan says:

    Imrahil, I’m not sure why you point out Eastern Catholics and those who follow the Ambrosian rite, then say that the Extraordinary Form belongs the entire Latin Church? There’s no reason to add Eastern Catholics to that statement as we belong to other sui juris churches; as such, the extraordinary form isn’t our heritage. While we are in Communion with Rome, we are not Latin Catholics and have separate churches and traditions. Catholic being Catholic, we’re not banned from other sui juris churches but it’s erroneous to say that we’re Latin Catholics.

  17. Imrahil says:

    Dear Nan,

    I did not say that you are Latin Catholics. I could not, however, say that the old rite is (in an extraordinary way) the rite of the whole Catholic Church, because it is not an Eastern rite.

    My point was that while there’s specific law deciding whether you are an Eastern or Western Catholic, no such criterion exists to distinguish an “old-rite Latin Catholic” from a “new-rite Latin Catholic”.

  18. pelerin says:

    It does seem strange that I worked out that last weekend I could have avoided the Feast of the Epiphany altogether if I had attended the NO on Friday and an EF on Sunday if I had so wished – or so I thought. I could also celebrate it twice by attending an EF on Friday and an NO on Sunday.

    However I eventually attended an EF on Friday and again in the same church on Sunday . The homily on Sunday was on the importance of the Family but the magnificent sung Mass by de Giovanni Croce (two hours long) was definitely that of the Solemnity of the Epiphany. So I am still baffled having attended two EF Masses for the same Feast day on two different days.

Comments are closed.