This weekend, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, closes the liturgical season of Christmas.
All of our Christmas season biblical stories have come from the first two chapters of the gospels of Matthew and Luke; these are sometimes called the “infancy narratives” because they describe the how the birth of Jesus came about.
In chapter three, these two gospels synch up with the first chapters of Mark and John, and describe how Jesus came to the river Jordan, as many others came, to be baptized by his relative, John the Baptist, whose mother was Elizabeth. Luke reports that Jesus was about 30 years old at the time.
Because Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry, it is very fitting that this feast closes the celebration of the Christmas season, and leads us into Ordinary Time.
Although the main visuals for Epiphany are the star, the magi, and the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the main message of the feast of the Epiphany is the revelation of the birth of Christ to the Gentiles — the “nations.” For most Christians, that means us: if you, your family, or your ancestors were not Jewish, then this is the feast for you.
Until Epiphany, everybody in the Christmas story was Jewish. Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, the people coming to Bethlehem for the census who filled up all the lodgings, the shepherds to whom the heavenly host appeared: everybody. But the three wise men weren’t Jewish: they came from other nations, and came looking for the new king of the Jews, to bring him gifts and do him homage.
You can see this theme in the other readings for the day: the first reading from Isaiah foretells kings from the “nations” coming to Jerusalem where the LORD will appear in glory, bringing wealth, and frankincense, and myrrh. Psalm 72 also talks about kings bringing tribute, and rejoices that “Every nation on earth shall adore you, LORD.” And Paul’s letter to the Ephesians spells out the good news:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The Gloria begins with the words that the angels sang to the shepherds, according to Luke 2:13-14:
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
(The exact wording of that second line depends both on which Greek manuscript is being followed, and how it is translated. The above is taken from the NABre, which explains in a footnote that it follows the Western and Alexandrian manuscripts rather than the Byzantine, which read “good will towards people.”)
And so it is a particularly Christmasy text. This is why we abstain from singing or saying the Gloria during Advent: so we can sing it at Christmas mass, as if for the first time, with the multitude of angels. (Did you notice we were omitting it during Advent?)
Here’s a setting of the Gloria from Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation, which is one of the most commonly known Mass settings among American Catholics:
Christmas is a season… that starts on Christmas Day. You can think of the season of Christmas as complementary to the season of Advent: during Advent we anticipate what during Christmas we celebrate.
You’ve heard the phrase “the twelve days of Christmas”? Those are the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. But the liturgical season of Christmas lasts all the way to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, a week later. This feast marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as an adult, as described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and so it’s a suitable closing for the season of Christmas.