A Prayer Book January

Since the late 20th century it's become common to invert the traditional relationship between fasting and feasting in the Christmas season. The ancient custom was to fast in Advent in preparation for the feast, and then to celebrate for at least twelve days after Christmas (and to some degree, all through January). Now we do it the other way around; for many people the feast is followed by a penitential fast, in the form of 'Dry January' or New Year's resolutions about eating less and going to the gym - Clerk of Oxford.

In the Prayer Book tradition we much of the traditional understanding of January outlined by Clerk of Oxord.  The month contains significant echoes of the festive season, sustaining us through the depths of winter.

So what are the characteristics of a Prayer Book January?

Days after the Epiphany

In the BCP 1662, the collect, epistle and gospel of the Epiphany are used until the subsequent Sunday.  A rubric in Ireland 1926 explicitly directs that the collect, epistle and Gospel for the Epiphany "shall serve for every day after, unto the next Sunday". PECUSA 1928 and Canada 1962 direct that the collect should be used "throughout the Octave".  Both provisions are an enrichment of 1662, providing added recognition to the significance of the Epiphany.

In many years (depending on how many days there are between the feast and the following Sunday), the 1662 and Ireland 1926 provision ensures that the collect of the Epiphany is prayed for a number of days following, continuing the celebration of the Epiphany.  The octave provided for in PECUSA 1928 and Canada 1962 ensures that this is so every year.

In other words, a dreary January does not commence on the 7th.  The use of the Epiphany collect at Mattins and Evensong, and the collect, epistle and Gospel of the Epiphany at the Eucharist, in the days following the Epiphany  (whether until the Sunday or during the octave) enables the Church to continue to rejoice in the feast.

Sundays after the Epiphany

Sparrow says of the Gospel readings for the Sundays after the Epiphany:

from Epiphany to Septuagesima, especially in the four next Sundays after Epiphany, [the Church] endeavours to manifest his glory and Divinity, by recounting some of his first miracles, and manifestations of his Deity, so that each Sunday is in this respect a kind of Epiphany.

The Gospel readings for these Sundays after the Epiphany are the traditional readings of the Latin West.  They draw us into the mystery of the Epiphany.  The glory encountered by the Magi we behold in the wisdom of the Christ Child before the teachers of the Law (First after the Epiphany ), in the miracle at Cana of Gallilee (Second after the Epiphany), in the healing of the centurion's servant and in the centurion's faith (Third after the Epiphany), in the healing of the the demoniacs in the country of the Gergesenes (Fourth after the Epiphany).

We continue, therefore, to behold the light and glory of the Epiphany, now made manifest in the life and ministry of our Lord.

The Conversion of Saint Paul

This feast towards the end of January similarly echoes the celebrations of the Epiphany.  The collect rejoices that the Conversion of Saint Paul "hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world".  This is a phrase echoing that in the Epiphany collect:

... who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles.

We seen, then, the light and glory of the Epiphany reaching across January, transfiguring the heart of Saul, bringing him to see the glory discerned by the Magi.

Black Letter Days

1662's Black Letter Days provide two commemorations worthy of particular reflection. Hilary (13th January) is appropriate for the time after the Epiphany. His defence of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and determination to confront Arian and Semi-Arian error contributes to the Church beholding the fullness of the mystery of the Epiphany.  It is because, as Hilary insisted, that "the substance of the Father and the Son is one", that we who behold the manifestation of the Son at the Epiphany believe that it will lead us to "the fruition of thy glorious Godhead" (collect of the Epiphany).  If Father and Son are not of one substance, this would not be our hope, and would not be the transfiguring, saving light and glory which we behold at the Epiphany.

Agnes (21st January) brings to mind the famous poem of Keats, 'The Eve of St Agnes':

St. Agnes' Eve - Ah, bitter chill it was! 

Keats here captures the experience of January, that while the shortest day of the year is now well past, these weeks are often the coldest of winter in the northern hemisphere.  Saint Agnes reminds us that we are still in the depths of winter, a winter warmed by the bright glow of the Epiphany celebrations resonating throughout January.

Royal Martyr

On the penultimate day of January, the original 1662 Kalendar commemorated the Royal Martyr.  It might, at first, seem to introduce a discordant note into a month shaped by the celebration of the Epiphany.  The bitter-sweet nature of the commemoration, however, prepares us for the feast falling in the first days of February - Candlemas.  The bitter cold of 30th January 1649, a king dying at the hands of others, a costly sacrifice which renewed the witness of the ecclesia Anglicana.  This orients us towards Candlemas, in the cold of our winter, "a sword shall pierce", "the fall and rising again", a feast which brings together the glory of the Epiphany and the glory of the forthcoming Passion.

No dry January

A Prayer Book January is no dry, dreary month.  It is filled with the light and glory of the Epiphany, in the days and Sundays following the feast, and in the celebration of the glorious light at, and flowing from, the Conversion of Saint Paul. Even when a sombre note is introduced at end of the month, it too is transfigured by the light of the Epiphany, light which makes a king "killed by the hands of cruel and bloody men" (from the collect of 30th January) the Royal Martyr.

We are sustained through the "bitter chill" of these weeks of winter by bright, glorious Light, the joy at the heart of a Prayer Book January.

(The first painting is John Duncan, 'The Adoration of the Magi', 1915. The second is Eric Ravilious, 'The Vicarage in Winter', 1935.)


  1. Thank you! Excellent explanation of the continuing joy that should define Epiphany Season. I am puzzled by the exchange of Epiphany for "Ordinary Time;" what do you think was the motivation to change the structure of the Church Year? Thanks again.

    1. Fr. Damien many thanks for the kind comment. In terms of the shift to 'Ordinary Time' I do wonder if it was chiefly inspired by a desire to 'simplify' the liturgical year. The problem is, of course, that this simplification lost the rhythms of the Church's year, not least the traditional way in which Sundays after the Epiphany and after Trinity defined how the mysteries of Incarnation and Trinity shaped the Church's life and prayer.



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