Now that we have joyfully celebrated the solemnity of Christmas doesn’t mean that the Christmas celebrations are over. As Archbishop Mgr Charles Scicluna rightly appealed in his message Christmas message, “we continue to rejoice not only during this Holy Night of Christmas and on Christmas Day but also for the following 12 days”.
The first eight days of 12 days following the Christmas liturgical celebration of December 25 are called the “Christmas Octave”. The number eight reminds us of the circumcision which, in the Old Testament was a sign of the convenant between God and Abraham, and therefore between God and the Jewish people, used to happen on the eighth day. The three main Church octaves are Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. The earliest octave celebration goes back to the Constantinian era, in the fourth century, when the churches of Tyre and Jerusalem were both dedicated to follow the dedication of the Jewish Temple. Both dedication celebrations kept going on for eight days.
The Christmas Octave ends with the solemnity of the greatest title Mary can ever have, Mother of God, in Latin Dei Genetrix. This great feast is so important both doctrinally and liturgically. Doctrinally, through Mary, we have the clearest clarification that Christ is both human and divine. Liturgically, it makes perfect sense to celebrate this feast because it is the clearest reaffirmation of what the Christmas mystery is all about, namely that the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us (John 1:14).
Each day of the Octave is an interesting devolopment of the Christmas mystery. It kicks off on December 25, the celebration of Christ’s incarnation, when God became a human being like us. Then, on December 26, the God-man Jesus, was perfectly followed by St Stephen, the first martyr. Like Jesus, Stephen forgave his enemies. And, his death, brought abundant good fruit by touching the heart of Saul, the later St Paul.
The feast of St John the Evangelist, on December 27, reminds us that John was a witness too to Jesus. As he tells us in his Gospel he saw the empty tomb of Jesus’ resurrection, and believed (see John 20:8). His life became a living witness to Jesus. The following day of the Octave, December 28, teaches us that not only grown ups are called to be Jesus’ witness but also innocents. On this day we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents who were killed by the envious Herod in his malicious effort to eliminate Jesus, the newborn King.
December 29, the fifth day of the Octave, we encounter Simeon and his prophecy concerning the Messiah. Simeon said to Mary, his mother: Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2:34-35). Am I believing in Jesus’ presence, be it in my heart, in every sacrament I celebrate, in the Word of God and in creation? Do I rejoice at his presence like Simeon?
December 30, the sixth day of the Christmas Octave, the liturgy makes us meet with the prophetess Anna. Like Simeon, Anna too prepared herself at the temple by worshipping, fasting and praying for the moment when she would meet the Baby Messiah. Anna recognized the Saviour by personal and special revelation from the Holy Spirit. She not only rejoiced with this knowledge but shared it with others, thus becoming his missionary at the temple. When I meet Jesus am I joyfully sharing him with others like Anna?
The penultimate day of the Octave, December 30, presents to us God’s reasoning as found in John’s Prologue. God’s way of reasoning is that of assuming our human nature to save us. As St Athanasius said in his treatise On the Incarnation: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (54:3). May we seek to understand and comprehend this overpowerful reality!
In case we find it too difficult to grasp it the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, of January 1, surely helps us to see this mystery before our eyes in Christ’s humanity and divinty. Jesus was her Child and this Child is God. And, if Mary is Our Mother, than Jesus, the Son of God, is our Elder Brother too!
What a healing conclusion and life support is this reality for you and me who believe or want to believe!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap