01 January 2011

Eight maids-a-milking on the Eighth Day of Christmas

On the Eighth Day of Christmas .. the naming and circumcision of the Christ Child, depicted in a stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Eighth Day of Christmas, 1 January. In the Book of Common Prayer 2004 of the Church of Ireland, this day recalls the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus; in other parts of the Anglican Communion, this day is simply the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.

Saint Luke recalls in his Gospel that, in accordance with Jewish tradition and law, eight days after his birth Jesus was circumcised and named. Mary and Joseph named their son Jesus because the angel told them that “he will save his people.” In Hebrew, the name Joshua means “the Lord will save.” There is an English tradition of remembering godparents on this day.

The Holy Family, by the Venetian painter Giovanni Pittoni , in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In many parts of the Roman Catholic tradition, 1 January is marked as the Feast of the Holy Family. One of the most striking features on entering the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where I have studied for the past three years, is the remarkably altar-piece, The Holy Family, by the Venetian painter Giovanni Pittoni, which was bought in 1783 for 20 guineas.

In the Orthodox tradition, 1 January is the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. But this day is also the feast day of Saint Basil the Great, and so the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is served on this day.

Cutting the Vasilopita (βασιλόπιτα) in the Greek Orthodox Church in Dublin last January (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In Greece, it is customary to bake a bread or cake called Vassilopita (βασιλόπιτα), which has a coin baked into it – the person who gets the coin in his or her piece of cake is said to be destined for many blessings in the coming year. Saint Basil has a Santa-like place in Greek lore. Many private or public institutions – such as societies, clubs, workplaces, companies, and so on – cut their Vasilopita at another time between New Year’s Day and the beginning of the Great Lent, with celebrations ranging from impromptu pot-luck gatherings to formal receptions or balls.

The cake is served in a traditional sequence: the first piece is set aside for Saint Basil, one of the “Three Hierarchs”; the second piece is for the home; and the rest of the cake is then handed out amongst family members, from the oldest to the youngest, each hoping to find the hidden coin in their slice.

The Three Holy Hierarchs

The Three Holy Hierarchs (Οι Τρείς Ιεράρχες) are Saint Basil the Great (Saint Basil of Caesarea), Saint Gregory the Theologian (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus) and Saint John Chrysostom. These three highly influential bishops from the Early Church played pivotal roles in shaping our theology.

In 11th century Constantinople, there were disputes about which of the three hierarchs was the greatest. Some argued that Saint Basil was superior to the other two because of his explanations of Christian faith and his monastic example. Those who argued for Saint John Chrysostom countered that the “Golden Mouthed” (Χρυσόστομος) Patriarch of Constantinople was unmatched in both eloquence and in bringing sinners to repentance. Those who preferred Saint Gregory the Theologian pointed to the majesty, purity and profundity of his sermons and his defence of the faith against the Arian heresy.

All three have separate feast days in January: Saint Basil on 1 January, Saint Gregory on 25 January, and Saint John Chrysostom on 27 January. Eastern Orthodox tradition says the three hierarchs appeared together in 1084 in a vision to Saint John Mauropous of Euchaita and said that they were equal before God: “There are no divisions among us, and no opposition to one another.” As a result, around 1100 the Emperor Alexios Komnenos declared 30 January a feast day commemorating all three in common.

On the Eighth Day of Christmas .. eight maids-a-milking

The eighth verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
eight maids-a-milking,
seven swans-a-swimming,
six geese-a-laying,
five golden rings,
four colly birds,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the eighth day of breast feeding the Christ Child, the maiden mother Mary brought the Holy Family to acknowledge the covenant between God and the People of Faith when she had the Christ Child named and circumcised. But the Christian interpretation of this song often sees the eight maids-a-milking as figurative representations of the eight Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 5: 2-10).

The Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: Numbers 6: 22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 2: 15-21.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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