Why does the Christmas season end with Jesus' baptism?

Q: I always thought the end of the Christmas season came with Epiphany and the arrival of the Magi. A priest recently said the season doesn't end until a week later with the Baptism of the Lord. What has the baptism of the adult Jesus got to do with Bethlehem? If it's supposed to mean a "turning of the page" in the life of Jesus, wouldn't a better event be the last scriptural appearance of the Holy Family, "the finding of the child Jesus in the temple" (Lk 2:48)? (City withheld, Indiana)

A: In our current liturgical calendar the last day of the Christmas season is indeed the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Normally, that feast is celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany -- although if Epiphany falls on Jan. 7 or 8, as it does in 2024, the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the following Monday.

But it is interesting to note that traditionally, Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation, was considered the end of the Christmas season. We can still see a few echoes of this even today. For instance, the Vatican keeps their Christmas tree and creche up in St. Peter's square until Feb. 2. And the blessing of candles customarily celebrated right before Mass for the feast of the Presentation opens with a prayer stating: "Brothers and sisters, 40 days have passed since the solemnity of Christmas. Today, the church once again prepares to celebrate the day in which Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple."

I would say that Jesus' baptism truly is a major "turning of the page" in Jesus' life, since, after his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist his quiet, hidden life became one of public ministry, wherein he actively sought to make his saving mission and identity known and proclaimed.

Further, the Baptism of the Lord, the Epiphany, and -- perhaps surprisingly -- the wedding at Cana all connect thematically, as they are all about the first manifestations of Jesus as the son of God. That is, they are all instances where the glory of Jesus' divine nature, which would ordinarily have been obscure and hidden to human eyes during Jesus' early life, is revealed.

At the Epiphany, (a word which literally means "revelation") Jesus' glory is revealed to the Magi. Traditionally, the church sees the Epiphany being, by extension, Jesus' manifestation to "the nations," or to all the other non-Jewish pagan cultures of the world who would not have previously known the one true God. In the narrative of Jesus' baptism, it is revealed that he is the beloved Son of God. (See Mk 1:9-11 and Lk 3:22). The wedding at Cana is the setting for Jesus' first public miracle, when he changes water into wine at Our Lady's request, (see Jn 2:1-11) and as such was a revelation to Jesus' friends and disciples of his glorious divine power over nature.

The connection between these seemingly unconnected events in the life of Jesus is particularly clear and intuitive to those of us who pray the Liturgy of the Hours. For example, the Magnificat antiphon for Evening Prayer for the Epiphany is: "Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation."

All these scriptural manifestations, even those that occurred decades apart, harken back to Bethlehem, because the birth of Christ was the first and most radical revelation of the Incarnate Word of God.

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.