The Christmas Octave

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!

Starting a New Liturgical Year

The Catholic phrase “liturgical year” refers to the schedule of celebrations, seasons, and feast days that we commemorate throughout the year (the most famous being Christmas and Easter). It actually gives a tremendous way to bring the Gospel into every-day life and to experience the scope of salvation history.

The “liturgical new year” begins with the first Sunday of Advent (four Sundays before Christmas). This time sets the stage of waiting and expectation for the coming of the Messiah, the birth of the Christ child. It gives a chance to begin again our reflection on the life of Jesus. We then celebrate the season of Christmas for about three weeks, which covers Jesus’ “hidden” life—from His birth to baptism. There is a period of “Ordinary Time” that leads up to Lent, which gives a more general reflection on His earthly ministry. With Ash Wednesday we start the forty days of special preparation for Easter Sunday, the day on which we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. Easter Season lasts for fifty days until the feast of Pentecost, when the apostles received the Holy Spirit and went out to begin preaching. Finally, the Church returns to Ordinary Time to meditate on our Christian life until the end of the year. The final Sunday of the year commemorates Christ the King—giving us a chance to reflect on the everlasting kingdom.

That is a very brief sketch, but hopefully shows the way that the whole of salvation history is summarized in each year! Why go over it again and again? I think the best reason is because we need that to really let things sink into our understanding. Every time we walk through this path we have the opportunity for deeper insight and better application. May the Lord bless the new liturgical year, and may it bear much fruit. God bless!

What is the Pentecost Novena?

Novenas are a popular form of Catholic prayer. It refers to spending nine days in a row praying for a particular intention. They may have a set prayer, a set of reflections, or another practice along with it (eg, giving up something for the time period or doing some work of mercy each day during the novena). Usually a novena is prayed in preparation for some specific feast day. It’s almost like a little mini-Lent. I personally have gained a lot of fruit from this devotion and have certain novenas that I pray every year.

However, I think that often people do not know that the origin for the practice is very Biblical! – not just some crazy thing Catholics made up :). It comes from the days of prayer that the disciples spent in preparation for Pentecost. Jesus spent forty days with his disciples after the Resurrection speaking to them about the Kingdom of God, and then before ascending into heaven gave the Great Commission for them to go out and preach the Gospel to all nations. But, Jesus did not instruct them to immediately begin the work. First, he told them to wait and pray in Jerusalem until they received the “promise of the Father” (see Acts of the Apostles 1:3-4). This promise was fulfilled just over a week later when the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (a word that means “fiftieth day”). This meant there had been nine days of prayer between the Thursday of the Ascension and Pentecost.

A novena can be as simple or involved as you desire. May the Lord create within us the space to receive the gift he desires to give!

A Famous Quote from St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena (feast day April 29th) lived in the late 1300’s and is considered one of the masters of the spiritual life despite her simple life and training. She also worked vigorously to correct the disunity and dysfunction of the Church at her time. This letter was written to her friend Stefano Maconi, who she believed was resisting God’s call to enter monastic life. She saw this as emblematic of the problems of the time, and wished his help in the work she had undertaken. After her death Stefano did become a Carthusian, eventually being named General of the Order. A quote from the end of this letter has become somewhat famous, and I think knowing this context makes it even more powerful! If we are what we ought to be (i.e., if we follow the call God has for us), we will set the world on fire! God bless-

From a Letter of St Catherine Sienna to Stefano Maconi

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest son in Christ Jesus: I Catherine, servant of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you with desire to see you arise from the lukewarmness of your heart…  For in truth, if we did see [the utter love of Christ], our heart would burn with the flame of love, and we should be famished for time, using it with great zeal for the honor of God and the salvation of souls. To this zeal I summon you, dearest son, that now we begin to work anew…

Be fervent and not tepid in this activity, and in encouraging your brothers and elders of the Company to do all they may in the affair of which I write. If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder. I say no more to you. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God….

What is Divine Mercy Sunday?

The second Sunday of Easter (i.e., one week after Easter Sunday) is celebrated in the Catholic Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. The day has had a long history as a special occasion since it is the “octave” (eighth day) of the great feast, including celebration for the newly baptized. Also, it corresponds to one of the Biblical apparitions. The Gospel read at Mass is always John 20:19-31, which recounts Jesus’ appearance to the Apostles after His resurrection. It includes Jesus’ initial words of “Peace be with you,” and when He breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles to commission them for the forgiveness of sins. Another important part is the absence of Thomas and his statement that he will not believe the resurrection until he sees the wounds. Jesus appears the following Sunday to make this revelation, which corresponds to this second Sunday of Easter.

The specific Divine Mercy devotion comes from St Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun that lived from 1905-1938. She received many messages in prayer of Jesus’ desire to spread the truth of His mercy throughout the world. She recorded these in her diary, but was always very cautious about discerning to make sure this was truly the will of God. Over time her writings were approved, and have borne great fruit! Considering the World War that occurred during her life and the second that came just as she was passing, there certainly was a great awareness of this need for mercy. She wrote many beautiful prayers and reflections which have helped many (including myself!) to gain a great awareness of the greatness of Divine Mercy. She commissioned an artist to draw an image of Christ with rays of blood and water coming forth from His heart (as happened when He was pierced on the Cross) as a symbol of this mercy, with the phrase “Jesus, I trust in You” written at the bottom. In particular, her message was very dear to Pope John Paul II, who officially introduced the title into the liturgy.

To return to the Gospel of the day, we see the way that Jesus pours out His mercy on the Apostles (who were well aware of their lack of faithfulness during His suffering and death), and at the same time commissions them to go forth and spread this mercy. I think this is such an important truth—the awareness of God’s mercy in our own life is a powerful foundation for our mission in the world. I encourage you to learn more about her if this message is of interest to you. May we continue to open ourselves to the mercy of God, and to spread this to the ends of the earth!

Spiritual Thoughts on the Desert

The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert in preparation for entering the Promised Land, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before beginning to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God. In the early Church (as the threat of martyrdom waned) the desert became a place that was sought for spiritual renewal. As Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and become more publicly acceptable there was a much greater temptation to mediocrity/lukewarmness. The early flame of lives transformed by the Gospel seemed to be less bright. Christians such as St Anthony the Abbot sought out the desert as a place to reconnect with this early fire. I think we face the same challenge today, and thought I’d share some thoughts about entering our yearly desert of Lent:

  1. The desert was a place where some of the noise and clutter of daily life was set aside. Therefore, it could be a special place of encounter with God in prayer. Jesus often prayed to his Father in the wilderness. We need this nourishment of prayer, too. Why do we stay away from it, or see it as a burden? Imagine someone that is a coffee drinker—coffee to them is seen as a source of life that helps them to enter into the day rather than a burden or obligation that must be laboriously accomplished. It is true that prayer at times includes an aspect of “spiritual combat” (petition, etc), but if this is our only experience of prayer then perhaps we are being called to include more relational prayer in our spiritual life. Find or make space for prayer, and spend time in conversation with God. Receive from his grace, and renew your desire for the life of Christ.
  2. However, the desert is also a place of trial, and this may be why we stay away from it. By stripping away distractions it brings us face to face with some of our difficulties and the challenges of silence. We become more aware of our unhealthy attachments or addictions. As we encounter these difficult truths, though, we can allow God to work to truly heal us. We invite the grace of God into this practice of discipline and seek freedom for love and fidelity. Why are we afraid of silence, or spiritual discipline? What might this reveal to us about what is in need of healing?
  3. Finally, the desert is a place of preparation. Christianity is not a religion that seeks suffering as a final goal, or the annihilation of self. Instead, as our freedom grows the love of God and neighbor reach more profound depths. We enter deeper into communion with others while becoming more fully that person we were created to be. The desert wasn’t the final stop for the Israelites, Jesus, or the saints. Instead, it was a step to something greater to come

God bless!

What are the traditional practices of Lent?

The traditional practices of Lent are drawn from Matthew 6: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus warns about doing these for the wrong reason, but gives this instruction assuming that his disciples will be practicing these three exercises! I think they work together to complement each other and allow Lent to truly renew us.

Prayer simply refers to conversation with God. It has times when it is done in common (for us, especially Mass or the other sacrament), and also in the silence of our hearts. We should have a plan for both. Furthermore, I think adult prayer needs to include some time of reflection/meditation. Spiritual reading (Scripture, a saint, etc) or devotions (eg the Rosary or Stations of the Cross) can help with this. If you are feeling discouraged at prayer I encourage you to seek out someone’s advice. I think we can expect the depth of our conversion to God to match the depth of our prayer!

Fasting means deliberately setting something aside, especially food. The Church gives the simple direction of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, along with abstaining from meat on each Friday. We can fast in other ways by setting aside other things (I think “screen time” is a good candidate here) and seeking a more simple life. I think a good practice is to always fast for a purpose. For example, Pope Francis has asked that our sacrifice on the Friday of the first full week of Lent be offered for peace in the many ongoing conflicts throughout the world, particularly those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. When we feel the absence of the thing we are fasting from we can be reminded to pray for this intention.

Almsgiving refers directly to giving money to the poor, but in general can include any of the works of mercy. The “great commandment” includes both love of God and love of neighbor, and so naturally I think both need to be included in a well-planned Lent. It is easy to focus primarily on ourselves even in our spiritual life. One way to approach this is to look for opportunities in the week ahead on Sunday (or even in the day ahead during the morning), and set some small resolution.

Finally, I want to mention a couple of things that I think can help with Lenten goals in general. First, if we can set resolutions as part of a group of family/friends I think that helps us to persevere. Second, I think we should check-up with ourselves occasionally and reformat goals if need be so that a bad stretch doesn’t de-rail us completely. The goal is to invite God into our lives in a transformative way, and to work with His grace to bear good fruit. God bless!