The Church’s liturgical season of Christmas is one of its shortest, but also one of its most unique. Within it is the eight-day celebration of the Lord’s Nativity—known as the Christmas octave—as well as other feasts related to Jesus’ status as Lord of the nations. And there are feasts of several saints, many of whose stories contain special significance to the season.
The configuration of the calendar relative to the season of Christmas is a bit complex. It always begins on the solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord (25 December) and ends on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, a movable feast roughly three weeks after Christmas. In Australia, 25 December is always a holy day of obligation.
The liturgical celebration of the Lord’s Nativity has many variables and components. There are four particular time frames during which Mass might be celebrated in observance of this great feast: a vigil, a Mass at night, a Mass at dawn and a Mass during the day. Each of these Masses have their own unique prayers and readings. The newness of life made possible because of the incarnation pervades the prayers and feasts of the Christmas season.
The four different Gospel readings assigned for use at the different Masses of Christmas all speak of the variety of the people affected by the Saviour’s coming. The beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 1:1–25), which lists Jesus’ family lineage, is proclaimed at the Vigil Mass. This list includes major figures of Judaism like Abraham and David, whose covenants with God foreshadow the new and everlasting covenant that will be sealed in the blood of Christ.
But Christ’s lineage also emphasises that he came to save the poor and lowly, shown by connecting him to ancestors of low degree, socially or morally.
The Gospel read at the Mass at night (see Luke 2:1–14) also underscores the importance of Christ’s coming for the marginalised and outcast, embodied by the news of his birth being shared firstly with the shepherds and not the rulers endowed with earthly power, who might have been regarded as entitled to receiving such news on behalf of their subjects.
It is important to note that on Christmas, the faithful all are to genuflect or kneel during the Creed at the words pointing to this central mystery of Christian faith: ‘and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man’. This helps us keep our hearts and minds focused on what the feast is all about. As the popular Christmas carol ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ phrases it, Jesus was ‘born that man no more may die; born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth’.
Within the octave are various feast days that have rich histories and traditions. It is interesting to note that the first feast day after Christmas—the very next day, 26 December—is the feast of a martyr. Recalling the purpose for which Christ came and the assignment of his divine mission, Christians are reminded, at this early stage of the celebrations of the Christmas season, of the Lord’s exhortation that anyone who wishes to follow after him must take up his cross. St Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith, is held up as a living witness of what it means to proclaim that Christ is saviour without counting the cost.
The feast of the apostle and evangelist St John fall on 27 December. Regarded as the disciple closest to Jesus, St John—traditionally believed to be the author of a gospel, the Book of Revelation and three New Testament letters—is the one who teaches us that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). Because St John’s Gospel alone includes the miracle at the Cana wedding feast, when Jesus miraculously changes water into wine, this feast has long been associated with the blessing of wine.
The Holy Innocents celebrated on 28 December were martyrs killed as the result of Herod’s murderous rage, resulting in his desire to eliminate any threats to his power by killing anyone who fit the profile of the newborn king he learned about from the Magi (see Matthew 2:13–18). Taking no chances for the babe’s survival, he ordered the murder of all boys in or around Bethlehem under the age of two. Christ, of course, survives, thanks to the heavenly intervention of the angel who appears in a dream to St Joseph and admonishes him to flee with Mary and Jesus in the middle of the night to Egypt. The gospel proclaimed on this day speaks into two issues about which the Church is concerned today: immigration and abortion.
Many of the few details we know of Jesus’ early life relate to his familial relationships. As a young man, we know he grew in the ways of faith as the obedient son of Mary and Joseph. The Church holds up annually the Holy Family of Nazareth as a model for all families, as a model for all human relationships. As St Pope Paul VI said during a visit to the Holy Family’s town in 1964, ‘Nazareth is the school in which we begin to understand the life of Jesus. It is the school of the Gospel.’ The feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas, except for the years when Christmas falls on a Sunday. Then it is celebrated on 30 December.
The octave of Christmas ends with the celebration of the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, on 1 January. The first day of January also marks the Church’s commemoration of the World Day of Peace, first observed 50 years ago in 1968. It seems appropriate and fitting to celebrate this day of peace on a Marian feast day, for peace is only possible through total self-sacrifice and surrender—through total love and obedience to the will of God, of which Mary is an icon for the Church.
It is worth noting that 1 January was previously known as the feast of the circumcision of the Lord, because Jewish ritual prescribed that Jewish males were circumcised on the eighth day after birth, in accordance with the covenant God made with Abraham. As a member of a pious, practising Jewish family, Jesus would have received this ritual induction into the Abrahamic covenant (see Luke 2:21).
Traditionally celebrated on 6 January, the twelfth day of Christmas, the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord is transferred to the Sunday between 2 and 8 January in the Australian liturgical calendar. In commemoration of the visitation of the Magi—who represent Christ’s salvation of all humanity, not just the Jews—this feast celebrates various aspects of Christ’s identity, as evoked by the gifts the Magi present to him. The gold and frankincense represent Christ’s status as king of the universe, the deity worthy of our true worship. And the myrrh points to the bitter reality that the babe in the manger was born to die.
The Christmas season ends with the feast of the Lord’s baptism, which falls on the Sunday after the Epiphany (unless the Epiphany falls on 7 or 8 January—as it does this year—in which case it is celebrated on the following day, a Monday.) This feast commemorates the day on which Christ formally accepts his mission as the redeemer when he receives St John the Baptist’s baptism of conversion and repentance. He sets out from the waters of the Jordan, identified as God’s own son by the Father’s voice that resounded from the opened sky, and inaugurates his saving work as the long-awaited Messiah who will free us of our sins.
Banner image: Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, polyptych with the Nativity (detail), mid-15th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Melbourne Catholic23 February 2024
Catholic Social Services Australia23 February 2024