The Catholic Church celebrates Christmas as an “octave.” What does this mean? It refers to extending the feast from a single day into an eight day celebration because there is just too much to fit into twenty-four hours! Octaves have a long tradition, and in the past many other feasts received this treatment (Easter is the only other Octave in the Church right now). The practice flows from a number of Old Testament feasts that celebrated the “eighth day,” as well as the eight-day dedication of the Temple. Here are some highlights from the Christmas Octave – these days help to extend the grace of the 25th, and draw out more aspects of its meaning!
December 26th commemorates St Stephen, the first martyr (see Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6). This is referenced in one of my favorite Christmas carols, Good King Wenceslas, which is set “on the feast of Stephen!” Stephen shows the strength of the Gospel being put into practice, as well as a powerful symbol of forgiveness. St Paul (before he was St Paul) was present at the stoning of Stephen, and the Office of Readings on this day reflects on this in light of Paul’s later conversion. It quotes a sermon by St Fulgentius, who wrote, “Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.” (You can find the full text here towards the end of the page: http://www.liturgies.net/Liturgies/Catholic/loh/christmas/stephen/officeofreadings.htm).
December 27th marks the feast St John, the Apostle and Gospel-writer. His books of scripture give a special insight into the heart of Christ, and emphasize that Jesus is the Word made flesh (born to save us and offer us the opportunity for encounter with Him). He alone among the Apostles stood faithful at the Cross, and was entrusted with/to the care of Mary, the mother of Jesus. As Stephen represents those who give their life by martyrdom, John represents those who give their life by fidelity to the end of natural life.
December 28th remembers the “Holy Innocents,” the children killed by Herod in his attempt to kill the Christ-child. In a way they represent all of those that gave their life before the arrival of the Messiah, as well as all those that suffer unjustly. This event required Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt with Jesus for a time. So, although Christmas is a joyful time, this day invites us to remember those who suffer and wait for the full peace of the Kingdom (As an interesting cultural note, in Mexico this is the equivalent of April Fools’ Day. The idea is that everyone wants to be seen as a “holy innocent” even while pulling the pranks!)
The Sunday after Christmas (or, December 30th if Christmas is a Sunday) is the feast of the Holy Family. We focus on the dynamics of the relationship of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In their home at Nazareth they began to embody and live the Gospel. I always appreciate this feast as a day of gratitude for my family, and to pray for all those that are in particular need at this time. It is also a time to reflect on what I can do to support my family and those around me.
Finally, I want to say a little about the “octave day” (January 1st). It is celebrated as the feast of Mary, the Mother of God (this day has a history of many names, which may be its own blog post at some point!). The title “Mother of God” was strongly promoted after the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) in contrast to the preaching of Nestorius (who denied the unity of Jesus as one Person, true God and true Man). We believe Mary gave birth to a Person, Jesus – who was the Son of God from all eternity, and took to himself a human nature in his birth in time from Mary. This is a key point because the whole work of redemption was to reunite fallen human nature with the abundance of the divine nature. Jesus realizes this in His person. Therefore, this feast brings us back to the beginning by reinforcing the full impact of what happened on Christmas Day; not just the birth of a good human child, but the birth of Salvation itself!