The time between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a unique time of the year. Despite the after-Christmas sales and all of that stuff, there is quietness about this octave, these eight days. People go to work—at least those who can’t afford to go to skiing for a week or go someplace warm—but there is still a feeling of “suspension” during these eight days. For the Church, these eight days, the Octave of Christmas, is a unique time, a time of joy but also a time of contrasts. The Christmas Octave is unique in that in the midst of the eight-day celebration of Christmas, we also commemorate a number of saints. The day after Christmas is the feast of St. Stephen, the First Martyr of the Church. This reminds us immediately of the cost of Christian discipleship and the identification of the Baby in the manger with the Savior of the world. The next day is the feast of St. John the Evangelist. How fitting it is that we celebrate the feast of that Evangelist who soars like an eagle throughout his Gospel and especially in the Prologue where he summarizes in an amazing way the answer to the question of “Who is this man Jesus?” It is this Gospel that the priest says after every Mass to remind him and the congregation the basis of what we do at Mass: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when we commemorate the death of the innocent Jewish children who were massacred by the orders of King Herod who was shaken with fear and hatred at the thought of the birth of a King who would be a rival to himself. These children were “martyrs unaware”. The following day is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who defended the rights of the Church against the State and who was killed at the altar at Vespers by the barons of the king. Those of you who have not read T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral should do so. Lots of incisive irony and understanding of what was at stake is contained in this drama. The final day of the year is the Feast of St. Sylvester, one of the early Popes who endured the terror of the persecutions under Diocletian, saw the triumph of Constantine, and who sent delegates to the Council of Nicaea.
The Octave Day of Christmas is in the Traditional Calendar the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord, the first time His blood was spilled. It is also the Naming of the Child Jesus. In the Novus Ordo calendar January 1 is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
This wonderful admixture of the witness of the Saints within the celebration of the birth of Christ gives us an opportunity to further ponder what Christmas means and allows us to greet each other for eight days with that wonderful greeting of joy and hope: Merry Christmas!
Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla