Q. At my previous parish, we said that the end of the Christmas season was the feast of the Epiphany (the three Wise Men). My current parish, though, says that the Christmas season concludes a week later on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Which one is right? And if it's the latter, what does the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River have to do with Christmas? (New Middletown, Indiana)
A. Many people do put away their Nativity creches and other Christmas decorations following the Epiphany, leading to a common assumption that the Christmas season closes with that feast. But liturgically, your current parish is correct.
The Christmas 2019 website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says this: "The liturgical season of Christmas begins with the vigil Masses on Christmas Eve and concludes on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. During this season, we celebrate the birth of Christ into our world and into our hearts, and reflect on the gift of salvation that is born with him ... including the fact that he was born to die for us."
The baptism of Jesus marks a sharp line of demarcation: Previous to that, he was viewed simply as a carpenter from Nazareth. But with his baptism, his public life begins as he proclaims with his words and actions the arrival of the reign of God; with the baptism in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit begins to lead Jesus in a new way.
The second part of your question, though, is a bit more difficult: What does Christ's baptism have to do with Christmas? Here, it's helpful to consider something Pope Benedict XVI said in a homily on the feast of the baptism in 2013.
He explained that both the nativity of Jesus and his baptism show the savior's solidarity with us, the humble immersion in our human condition that allowed Christ to understand our weakness and frailty. Even though Jesus had no need for baptism as a sign of repentance, he allowed it to happen. In the words of Pope Benedict, "He was moved to compassion, he chose to 'suffer with' men and women, to become a penitent with us."
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Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.