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The Octave of Christmas

By Father Brian Doerr

 

 

* First Day * Second Day * Third Day * Fourth Day * Fifth Day * Sixth Day * Seventh Day * Eighth Day *

From the Latin word, Octava, comes the ancient practice of celebrating Christmas for eight wonderful days.  We would like to invite you to join our parish in allowing Christmas its proper observance – by continuing the celebration for eight days. We are celebrating the Word made Flesh!  Can we properly celebrate this unfathomable mystery in just one morning?  By observing the Octave, we hope to “re-order” our Christmas observance, quite frankly, away from the modern American practice of celebrating Christmas during December (when the Church observes Advent) while disregarding the Christmas Season. By December 26, the candles are snuffed, the weight has been gained, and we cast a forlorn look toward spring as so many are burned-out on reindeer, elves and candy canes. 

We would like to assist your family in their return to the ancient practices of this worthwhile observance and root them more firmly in the Christian tradition.  Respect is due to the practices you and your family have developed at home.  The traditions you have developed are not, in some way, incorrect.  Yet, adopting some of these practices suggested below will unite your family to the traditions and customs observed for centuries by our Catholic ancestors.

Why celebrate for eight days?  The practice actually is as ancient as the Old Testament.  The Hebrew people observed many of their feasts for a period of eight days.  The “Feast of Tabernacles” and the “Dedication of the Temple” are two of the more notable.  Later, the Roman Emperor Constantine continued the tradition by celebrating the dedication of basilicas in the Christian World for the same period of eight days.  Prior to the Second Vatican Council, which closed in 1965, the Church granted certain feasts the dignity of an octave.  In addition to the more prominent liturgical observations of Easter, Pentecost, Epiphany, the feasts of Sts. Peter and St. Paul, St. Lawrence, and St. Agnes were observed.  Today we celebrate two feasts with Octaves:  Easter (being the more prominent) and Christmas.

Again, so why celebrate for eight days?  Life in the ancient world was so hectic and filled with pressure and families had grown apart and were being swept up in the older pagan traditions, the Church granted a period of eight days in order to contemplate the mysteries experienced in the Church’s liturgy.  Comparatively speaking, we obviously need the Octave even more than the Christians of the ancient world!  The ancient world did not have television, shopping malls, computers, telephones, fast food, automobiles, magazines and newspapers… if the Ancients were busily distracted, what has become of us!? We need to enjoy this time!  If you need, take off work, visit family, feast, attend Mass, praise God, visit the poor, celebrate charity, and most of all be humbled before the Mystery:  The Word of God has become man!

 

December 25; the First Day of the Christmas Octave, the Nativity of the Lord

Opening Prayer from the Liturgy:  “Father, we are filled with the new light by the coming of your Word among us. May the light of faith shine in our words and actions. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In your Bible:  Luke 2:1-14; the Story of the Nativity

Catechesis: Recently, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged his flock to overcome the “commercial contamination” of Christmas by rediscovering the Child Jesus, the Son of God made man out of love. There is nothing like a bit of guilt for Christmas morning!  Yet, everyone mumbles to him or herself that “next year, we are going to cut back.”  And every year, the commercial aspect of Christmas reigns out of control. The Holy Father wants us to experience the fullness of the Church’s celebration: “The authentic spirit of Christmas is, “he said recently, “characterized by recollection, sobriety, a joy that is not exterior but profound.”

Activity: To regain the true meaning of our observance, the Holy Father suggested we focus on the tradition of placing a Nativity crib in our homes as a way of teaching the Christian faith, especially to children. Pope Benedict XVI encourages us to continue the custom of placing the crib in the home, as it “can be a simple but effective way of presenting the faith and transmitting it to one's children. The manger helps us to contemplate the mystery of God's love who revealed himself in the poverty and simplicity of the Bethlehem cave.” If you do not have a crib, take some time today to make one or use a Christmas greeting card.  Otherwise, sometime today, gather around the crib to sing, to pray and to adore the Christ child.

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December 26; the Second Day of the Christmas Octave, St. Stephen, First Martyr

Opening Prayer from the Liturgy:  “Lord, today we celebrate the entrance of Saint Stephen into eternal glory. He died praying for those who killed him. Help us to imitate his goodness and to love our enemies. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In your Bible: Acts of the Apostles 6:8-10; 7:54-59; The Story of St. Stephen’s Martyrdom

Catechesis:  One wonders why the Church would celebrate the feast of a martyr on the Second Day of the Octave of Christ’s nativity.  Pope John Paul II supplied the answer:  “The Church calls the day of martyrdom a dies natalis (day of birth). Indeed, by virtue of Christ's death and Resurrection, the death of the martyr is a birth in Heaven. This is why it is so meaningful to celebrate the first martyr the day after Christmas: Jesus who was born in Bethlehem gave his life for us so that we too, reborn "from on high" through faith and Baptism, might be willing to give up our own lives for love of our brothers and sisters” (John Paul II, Angelus, Feast of St. Stephen, 2002).

Activity:  “Boxing Day” is a popular tradition in England, Germany and Holland. A practiced developed in the middle-ages whereby priests opened the parish poor box and distributed the wealth to the poor on the feast of St. Stephen.  Similarly, the laity imitated the Church’s practice and kept their own poor “boxes” throughout the year.  On the day following Christmas, the box was opened, the money tallied, and distributed to the poor. Eventually, Boxing Day became a day of giving and receiving gifts.

The poor, according to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council is defined as “anyone in need.”  Today, find those people:  the lonely, the forgotten, the shut-in, the sick, the materially poor, the spiritually poor, and give them the gift of your presence.  Do not be cynical.  Do not underestimate the value of your presence, the love you bring and the care you give.  We live in a world where many are poor, they await you on this day.

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December 27; the Third Day of the Christmas Octave, St. John the Apostle, Evangelist

Opening Prayer from the Liturgy:  “God our Father, you have revealed the mysteries of your Word through John the apostle. By prayer and reflection may we come to understand the wisdom he taught. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In your Bible: 1 John 1:1-4; The Word of Life

Catechesis:  Today we celebrate the memory of St. John the Evangelist who wrote a Book of the Gospel, three letters and, some hold, the Book of Revelation.  St. John, of whom it can be said knew Jesus more intimately than anyone (other than his mother), gave us lofty concepts of great theological consequence.  St. John’s writings are the source of our knowledge of Christ’s pre-existence as the Word of God, his “mission” to bring light to the world, and the sacred truth that Jesus is God made man.  The theme of St. John’s Gospel focuses on Christ’s Divinity as well as the mournful response of his own  people who, “did not accept him” (John 1:11). St. John is worthily considered the “evangelist of the divinity of Christ.”

Activity: Take time today to “study the Sacred Page.”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,’ by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures.” Then, quoting St. Jerome, the Catechism reminds us that “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (133).

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December 28; the Fourth Day of the Christmas Octave, The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

Opening Prayer from the Liturgy:  “Father, the Holy Innocents offered you praise by the death they suffered for Christ. May our lives bear witness to the faith we profess with our lips. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In your Bible: Matthew 2:13-18; The Story of the Holy Innocents

Catechesis: When one considers the slaughter of the children, one cannot but think of today’s modern scourge of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and assisted suicide.  Perhaps this may sound insensitive to our modern ears, but consider the parallels:  Herod was paranoid of loosing his throne.  He was quite familiar with the prophecy of Numbers 24, “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel… Edom shall be dispossessed.” Herod was an Edomite; and he saw the same “sign” that the Magi saw. This left him with one choice:  to “die to self” and choose to follow Christ, or to resist – to fight for control, to have things his way, to violate the rights of others in an attempt to keep his power.  And, for the same reasons, we succumb to these temptations as Herod did.  Remember the unborn and those women and men who have been deeply wounded by the curse of abortion, especially today.

Activity: Christmas is a time for children.  Perhaps today we can focus upon them once again.  Children are a sign of life and hope, of joy and innocence, of true and “unconditional” love. Spend time with a child or a young person this day.  Read to a boy or a girl, play basketball with an adolescent, go to the movies together, or, perhaps, just listen to him or her. The day need not be extravagant.  Simply making time to be with them and giving them your attention will make their day quite meaningful.

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December 29; the Fifth Day of the Christmas Octave, Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr

Opening Prayer from the Liturgy:  “Almighty God, you granted the martyr Thomas the grace to give his life for the cause of justice.  By his prayers make us willing to renounce for Christ our life in this world so that we may find it in heaven.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In your Bible: Matthew 16:24-27; Jesus calls “Follow Me.”

Catechesis: (Mark 8:36).  Pope John Paul II, before his death, cautioned us that “the confusion between good and evil” is the “most dangerous crisis which can afflict man.”  It is in this ‘affliction’ that the martyrs find their vocation. “By their eloquent and attractive example, of a life completely transfigured by the splendor of the moral truth, the martyrs… light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense” (Veritatis Splendor 92). The man we celebrate today played a role, 835 years ago, in reawakening a sense of justice in his own world.  Thomas’s is an interesting story.  After becoming the chancellor to Henry II, he was chosen by the king to be Archbishop of Canterbury. As the story goes, Thomas went from being "a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds" to his exalted vocation as a "shepherd of souls."  As Henry II continually restricted the liberty of the Church, the conflict between St. Thomas Becket and the king grew.  Eventually, the Archbishop of Canterbury was assassinated in his own cathedral by the “order” of the king who said, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”. As the assassins approached St. Thomas in his Cathedral he declared, “I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and Peace.” After his murder, Thomas became instantly famous.

Activity: Today would be a good day to bring reconciliation to those with whom we are separated for the sake of unity and peace.  Thomas longed for liberty and peace to reign in the Church.  We must take care not to be the cause of separation and division.  This undoubtedly may be difficult to do, but we can at least pray for those with whom we have become estranged. The effort we put forth in our attempts to be reconciled is far less burdensome than carrying the anger and hurt and pain of  past conflicts.  Today, make an attempt at reconciliation.

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December 30; the Sixth Day of the Christmas Octave, The Holy Family

Opening Prayer from the Liturgy:  “Father, help us to live as the Holy Family, united in respect and love. Bring us to the joy and peace of your eternal home. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In your Bible: Luke 2:22-40; Jesus Became Strong, Filled with Wisdom

Catechesis:  There are two pillars of our Christian society responsible for the common good and the welfare of our people. In recent years, both of these pillars have come under demonic attack:  the family and the priesthood.  A society which allows unimaginable perversions of the family to occur, most especially in the name of “tolerance” and “fairness,” is doomed to destruction.  Jesus, through his own earthly family, demonstrates the importance of the “traditional” family to the world. Thus, families must come to see the impact their influence has on society for the good of all – and rise up to this challenge. 

Activity: Today, gather the members of your family together and consecrate your family to the protection of the
Holy Family:

“O Jesus, our most loving Redeemer, who came to enlighten the world with Your teaching and example, willed to pass the greater part of Your life humbly and in subjection to Mary and Joseph in the poor home of Nazareth, thus sanctifying the Family that was to be an example for all Christian families, graciously take to Yourself our family as it dedicates and consecrates itself to You this day. Defend us, guard us, and establish among us Your holy fear, true peace, and harmony in Christian love; in order that by conforming ourselves to the divine pattern of Your family all of us without exception may be able to attain to eternal happiness.

“Mary, dear Mother of Jesus and our Mother, by your kindly intercession make this, our humble offering, acceptable in the sight of Jesus, and obtain for us His graces and blessings. O Saint Joseph, most holy Guardian of Jesus and Mary, help us by your prayers in all our spiritual and temporal necessities; that we may be enabled to praise our divine Savior Jesus, together with Mary and you for all eternity.”

(Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be to the Father) Consecration by: Father Francis L. Filas, SJ

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December 31; the Seventh Day of the Christmas Octave, Sylvester I, Pope

Opening Prayer from the Liturgy:  “Lord, help and sustain your people by the prayers of Pope Sylvester. Guide us always in this present life and bring us to the joy that never ends.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In your Bible: Matthew 16:13-19; The Keys of the Kingdom

Catechesis: On this, the seventh day in the octave of Christmas, Holy Mother Church remembers St. Sylvester I, pope and confessor. Pope Sylvester reigned as Pontiff for 21 years, was a friend of the Emperor Constantine and endorsed the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325.  Some refer to Sylvester as the “peace Pope” as he became pope shortly after the end of  centuries of bloody persecution.  Like many of our early saints, legends have arisen around his memory:  he is said to have freed Emperor Constantine from leprosy by baptism and killed a “ferocious dragon” that was contaminating the air with his “poisonous breath.”

Activity: Have you ever stopped to think about where we would be without our Church?  What if we lacked the opportunity for reconciliation, Confirmation or Holy Communion.  What if we lacked the gift of our faith - the faith that has been passed down to us from the time of the Apostles?  What if we lacked a Supreme Pontiff and the world was ruled by the tyranny of evil, selfishness and hatred? Today, pray fervently for the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and for his collaborator, Timothy, our Bishop, and pray especially today for the person - parent, grandparent, priest, religious brother or sister, catechist or friend - who first taught you your faith.

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January 1; The Eighth Day of the Christmas Octave, The Mother of God

Opening Prayer from the Liturgy:  “God our Father, may we always profit by the prayers of the Virgin Mother Mary, for you bring us life and salvation through Jesus Christ her Son who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Sprit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In your Bible: Luke 2:16-21; Mary Kept All Things in Her Heart

Catechesis: “Mary, the all-holy ever-virgin Mother of God, is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time. For the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men. In this sense the Church's Tradition has often read the most beautiful texts on wisdom in relation to Mary. Mary is acclaimed and represented in the liturgy as the ‘Seat of Wisdom’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 721).  Today’s feast, Mary the Mother of God, was first celebrated on January 1st in the seventh century.  But in 1967, Rome also inaugurated this day as a world day of prayer for peace.  After all, we have celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace for the past eight days, it is proper to reserve this day for “intense prayer for peace, education towards peace and those values inextricably linked with it, such as liberty, fraternal solidarity, the dignity of the human person, respect for nature, the right to work, the sacredness of human life, and the denunciation of injustices which trouble the conscience of man and threaten peace.”

Activity: Due to our fast-paced lives and how accustomed we have become to the electronic age, praying the rosary can be bothersome, even “painful” to some.  Surprising is the number of Catholics who do not even know how to pray the rosary.  Today, gather to pray the family rosary that, through Our Lady, Queen of Peace, we may have peace in our hearts, our homes and our community, nation and world.  For further encouragement, consider this list of benefits for praying the rosary:

1. It gradually gives us a perfect knowledge of Jesus Christ.
2. It purifies our souls, washing away sin.
3. It gives us victory over all our enemies.
4. It makes it easy for us to practice virtue.
5. It sets us on fire with love of Our Lord.
6. It enriches us with graces and merits.
7. It supplies us with what is needed to pay all our debts to God and to our fellow men;
   and finally, it obtains all kinds of graces for us from Almighty God.

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