A Perfect Christmas Octave

A liturgical octave is the eight-day observance of an important feast of the Christian calendar. During each day, the feast itself is commemorated even if other feasts happen on those days. The traditional liturgy is rich with octaves, and one of the jewels of our traditional calendar is the Christmas Octave.

By the way, if you want to know how to calculate an octave, it’s easy: If the feast is on a Friday (as Christmas was this year), its octave day is the following Friday. To the mathematically challenged — like your humble author — who may be thinking that a week is only seven days, let me point out that Friday to Thursday gives us seven days, but if you want eight days, you have to add the next Friday. Simple, right? If you don’t trust me (gasp!), look at a calendar and count out each day.

Those who have had just a modicum of music theory will know what a “perfect octave” is. My use of the term here is not just a gratuitous pun. The word “perfection” connotes a completion, a finishing, or a fulfilling of one’s purpose. As Jesus is our Savior, announced as such that first Christmas, we want to consider here, among other things, His ongoing work as our Savior.

Just as the number eight has a tremendous significance in music, it also has an architectural significance, specifically a religious architectural significance for Catholics, which David Clayton explains so well at his Way of Beauty site.

The octave of Christmas is famous for its contrasts: On December 25 — yes, that is the correct date — we celebrate birth of Our Lord. In fact, the traditional Roman Rite celebrates His “three births,” those being Jesus’ birth of Mary in time (Midnight Mass), the birth of Christ in our souls by faith and Baptism (Mass at Dawn), and the Word’s eternal birth in the bosom of the Father (Mass of Christmas Day). The next day on the Roman calendar is that “Feast of Stephen” we hear commemorated in a lovely Christmas carol; for all that ditty’s Yuletide warmth and cheer, the feast itself presents us with the sanguinary scene of the Protomartyr’s death by stoning. Saint John’s Day is on December 27, which gives us a break from gory scenes of martyrdom as the Disciple whom Jesus Loved died peacefully — having five years previously undergone a painful martyrdom he miraculously survived. The next day definitively ends our break from gore with the Feast of the Holy Innocents, those scores of Hebrew boys murdered by Herod’s mad jealousy. By the same kind of English elision that brings us the word “Christmas,” the feast came to be known as Childermas” (the Children’s Mass). The twenty-ninth presents us with a lone martyr-bishop, Saint Thomas a Becket, whose shrine gave our European ancestors a wonderful place of pilgrimage, which, in turn, inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Next day is simply a day of the Christmas Octave with no saints added to the Mass or Divine Office, though Saint Sabinus and other martyrs are listed in the Martyrology. The thirty-first brings us the Pope who confirmed the acts of the Council of Nicea — and therefore assured us infallibly that this little Baby is an Eternal Person who is consubstantial with the Father — Saint Sylvester I. The day following is the Octave Day itself, and it presents us with the first blood-shedding of Our Lord as it is the Feast of the Circumcision, on which day He was also given the Holy Name of Jesus by Saint Joseph.

Having just given a bird’s-eye view of the whole Octave, I would like now to focus on two of its Feasts and some lessons we can derive from them: Saint Stephen’s Day (December 26), and the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1).

Saint Stephen’s collect provided us with a good starting point:

Grant us, we beseech thee, O Lord, so to imitate what we revere, that we may learn to love even our enemies; for we celebrate the heavenly birthday of him who knew how to pray for his very persecutors to our Lord Jesus Christ….

We know that Saint Stephen prayed for his persecutors as they were in the very act of murdering him because Saint Luke recorded this prayer as the Protomartyr’s dying words (Acts 7:59). The story of Stephen the Levite of the New Testament (he was a deacon) is told in Chapters six and seven of Acts. We learn there that his preaching aroused the anger of certain Jews, who falsely accused him (as his Master had been) of plotting to destroy the Temple. He was brought to the Sanhedrin, before whom he preached the longest of the many speeches or sermons recorded by Saint Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. It takes up most of chapter seven, and ends with his audience being so aroused to anger that they kill the speaker.

The sermon that the angel-faced deacon delivered began with the story of Abraham. That might seem to us a strange place to begin, considering that he was asked to defend himself against the crime of saying that “Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place [the Temple], and shall change the traditions which Moses delivered unto us” (6:14). But there was a method to his holy madness. He was turning the tables on his auditors, showing them in his rapid-fire summary of a thousand years of salvation history — mentioning Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon — how frequently their ancestors had fallen into infidelity and had even rejected those appointed by God as their deliverers. The Protomartyr particularly emphasized the contemptuous treatment of the “deliverer” figures Joseph and Moses. Toward the end of his speech, Saint Stephen mentions both the Tabernacle and the Temple, the former being the portable structure that God ordered Moses to build, and the latter its permanent replacement built by Solomon. He includes, in his few words on these sacred edifices, two blistering passages from the Prophet Amos and Isaias. Amos accused the Israelites of idolatry by keeping another tabernacle dedicated to Moloch, while Isaias accused them of a certain semi-idolatry toward the Temple itself, one which neglected the demands of true religion. These painful references are both quite relevant in light of the fact that Saint Stephen was accused of stirring up animosity against the Temple.

Having reminded his audience of these ancestral infidelities, he then launches into a robust and, one might say with some imprecision, suicidal grand finale (7:51-53):

You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.

Note that Saint Stephen had referred nine times throughout this discourse to “our fathers,” but then, when addressing the Sanhedrin on their rejection of Christ, he abruptly changed from the first person to the second person, accusing his listeners of imitating “your fathers” in their infidelity. Very artful.

When the killer speech had concluded and he was driven out of the city (like Jesus) and stoned, the courageous Protomartyr uttered his arresting denouement, which must have struck his audience as something of a surprise ending:

And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. (Acts 7:59)

Saint Stephen had the profound charity to pray for his enemies, even to beseech God — in imitation of Jesus Christ Himself — that his murderers be forgiven for murdering him while that heinous act is in progress. But be it noted that, also in imitation of his Divine Master, he did so only after witnessing the truth to them. That truth was offensive, not in itself, but to his hearers whose guilty consciences he pricked. This is yet another reminder among many that without true faith, charity is impossible. For those tempted to religious indifference, this is a bitter pill to swallow. But to those whose faith does not work by charity, and whose zeal is bitter because not properly tempered by meekness, Saint Stephen’s dying words of forgiveness are a tremendous challenge, one we may be called upon more and more to imitate in difficult days that are likely to come.

Now a few words on January 1. The entire Christmas Octave is filled with the words “Savior” and “salvation.” The Holy Name of Jesus, bestowed on our Infant King by Saint Joseph at His Circumcision, means “Savior.” This is what He came to do: save us. We must ask Him continually to do that, and at the same time, permit Him to do so — “Being confident … that he, who hath begun a good work in [us], will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). If we reject the heresy of “once saved always saved,” and acknowledge that our justification can be lost, we must also accept our need to cooperate continually with Christ’s saving work, without losing confidence in His grace and mercy. Where Christ’s work and ours most especially meet, as Saint Alphonsus Liguori assures us, is in prayer.

Jesus is our Deliverer. Saint Stephen reminded his Jewish listeners that their ancestors had rejected God’s chosen deliverers. Let us not reject Our Savior or His continuing work of salvation in us as our Old-Testament fathers rejected Joseph and Moses.

Now, to accept that salvation, that deliverance, that the Savior offers us, we have to accept it on His terms. He came to us humbly attired in our mortal flesh:

Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith: Sacrifice and oblation thou wouldest not: but a body thou hast fitted to me: Holocausts for sin did not please thee. Then said I: Behold I come: in the head of the book it is written of me: that I should do thy will, O God. (Heb. 10:5-7)

Jesus is not only our new and definitive Deliverer; He is also the New Temple, the new Priest, and the new Sacrifice — all made possible though that mortal flesh in which Mary clothed Him by Her wondrous cooperation with the Holy Ghost. On this day, the Son of God made Son of Mary commences the bloody work of our salvation by submitting himself to the painful Abrahamic rite of circumcision. We see then the connection between the Marian character of this day and Our Lord’s first shedding of His Precious Blood: He would not be able to offer this bodily sacrifice if She had not given Him a body. That is the incarnational economy of our salvation, whereby Our Lady is the sacred “Matrix” out of which arose the Man-God.

In the new Roman Calendar, January 1 is the Solemnity of the Mother of God. Now, as ill advised as I believe this jettisoning of the Mystery of the Circumcision to be, I also acknowledge the historical reality that this Feast of January 1 was always Marian in character — focusing intensely on the Divine Maternity — as will be seen by perusing its propers in the traditional Roman Mass and Divine Office.

I would like to close these lines by sharing some of the propers from the Feast of the Circumcision, beginning with the five antiphons that accompany the Psalms of Vespers.

  1. O wondrous interchange! * the Creator of mankind, taking upon him a living body, vouchsafed to be born of a pure Virgin: and by his Humanity, which was begotten in no earthly wise, hath made us partakers of his Divinity.
  2. When thou wast born * all ineffably of a Virgin, then were the Scriptures fulfilled; thou camest down like the dew upon the fleece of wool, to bring salvation unto all mankind; we praise thee, O our God.
  3. In the bush which Moses saw * unconsumed, we recognize the preservation of thy glorious virginity: holy Mother of God, intercede for us.
  4. The Root of Jesse hath budded, * the Star hath come out of Jacob, the Virgin hath borne the Saviour: we praise thee, O our God.
  5. Lo, Mary hath brought forth * the Saviour of whom when John saw him, he did proclaim: Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world, alleluia.

Here is the chapter for Vespers:

The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world.

And the lovely antiphon for the Magnificat:

Herein is a great mystery * of heirship; the womb of her that knew not a man is become the temple of God; in taking of her flesh, He was not defiled; all nations shall come and say: Glory be to thee, O Lord!

Lastly, here is the collect, or oration:

O God, Who, by the fruitful virginity of the Blessed Mary, hast given unto mankind the rewards of everlasting life; grant, we beseech thee, that we may continually feel the might of her intercession, through whom we have worthily received the Author of our life, our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son.