As I write, we celebrate the Octave of Christmas. Liturgical octaves are mysterious periods which foreshadow the eschatological eighth day, the time of outside of time after the seven-day cycle of creation and rest, the time after the end of the world and the remaking of the cosmos. During this octave, we can continue to view the many-faceted Christmas mystery from different angles. GK Chesterton observed: “Everybody writes about what a glorious Christmas we are going to have. Nobody, or next to nobody, ever writes about the Christmas we have just had.” Hence, the importance of the octave and the whole of Christmastide.
Speaking of the octave and keeping the Nativity before our eyes, why – during the octave itself – does Holy Church distract our attention from the birth of the Lord with the important feast days of saints Stephen (December 26), John the Evangelist (27th) and the Holy Innocents (28th)?
One answer is that the feasts were observed before the Christmas grew into greater liturgical importance and they remained. A key writer of the 20th-century Liturgical Movement, Pius Parsch, offers explanations that go beyond the merely historical.
First, Parsch observes that St Bernard of Clairvaux said that we pay homage to the newborn king with three modes of sanctity, that is, as martyrs in will and deed (Stephen), in will only (John) and in deed only (Holy Innocents).
Next, Parsch suggests that in these octave saints we see how the Church presents the ancient understanding of the perfection of holiness as reflected in the Book of Revelation: “clothed with white robes and with palms in their hands” (Rev 7:9). Thus, we go forth to meet the Infant King on the first feast day as martyrs, like St Stephen. On the second, we go in the manner of virgins, like John. On the third, we process as virgin martyrs. This understanding can shape the first four days of the mystery, which is like bringing the end of the world into contact with our daily lives. We go to the Baby Jesus who is also the eschatological Lamb, around whose throne the saved sing their hymns of praise. Like the glorious throngs of heaven, we “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Rev 14:4).
All of humanity today needs examples of purity and faithful witness, even unto suffering and the shedding of blood. Step up and be counted. Happy Christmas!
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