December 26 is Saint Stephen, isn’t it?

December 26 is the ancient and honorable feast of Saint Stephen, protomartyr and archetype of the diaconate.

Except that it is not. Not in 2021.

According to the General Roman Calendar from 1969, the Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on the Sunday in the Christmas octave (not on the Sunday after Epiphany where it used to be since 1920). Whenever December 25 is a Saturday, December 26 is the next Sunday which means that Saint Stephen and Holy Family occur on the same day. Following the 13-fold order in the ranking of liturgical days, Holy Family is a feast of the Lord (rank 5), Saint Stephen is a feast of a saint (rank 7). Hence Holy Family is celebrated while Saint Stephen is not even postponed to one of the following days, but simply omitted.

I can understand every single step that led to this outcome, but the outcome itself has a bad aftertaste. Saint Stephen is one of the oldest—if not the oldest—memorial that was extensively celebrated in Christian communities at least in the 3rd and 4th centuries, even before Christmas was introduced. It has never changed its date in Western liturgies (while most churches of the East prefer December 27 or—in case of the Armenians—December 25). Protestant churches that are generally more reserved in the veneration of saints hold certain traditions of commemorating Saint Stephen on December 26 too.

The feast of the Holy Family deserves to be held in high esteem. Even though it has no long tradition, and even though it was often used to promote a stuffy and sort-of bourgeois image of a “perfect family” on the basis of several non-biblical projections, it has proven to have a lot of spiritual potential. Just take a look at the three gospel readings: Matt 2:13—15.19—23 in year A connects the church deeply to the fate of refugees, Luke 2:22—40 in year B to Judaism that Jesus and his parents belonged to and devoutly followed, Luke 2:41—52 in year C to all families and communities that live in misunderstandings, cluelessness, and mental overload.

But is this enough to break with such a long, outstanding, biblical, and ecumenical tradition as the feast of Saint Stephen who gave his life as the first New Testament martyr: as a committed servant to the needy, as a preacher of faith, praying for those who persecuted him, widely venerated by Christians of the first generations?

I find it disappointing that on this score the post-Vatican calendar is less ecumenical than the calendar which preceded it, and I would suggest there are ways to fix this imbalance in one of the following more or less simple manners:

  • Raise Saint Stephen from the rank of a feast to a solemnity. It would then automatically take precedence over the feast of the Holy Family. Its Eucharist would need an additional reading and would include the Creed. The Liturgy of the Hours which is currently a mixture of the feast and the Christmas octave would need clarification and revision. A lot of single steps maybe, but when Saint Joseph (March 19) and Peter and Paul (June 29) are solemnities, why not Stephen?
  • Whenever Holy Family occurs on December 26, it is preceded by Saint Stephen and omitted. This solution would be a bit illogical and against the general rules of the calendar, but that would not matter much in the Christmas cycle where a lot of special rules are applied anyway. One could also consider a combination like “Mass from St. Stephen, LotH from Holy Family,” similar to the solution when All Soul’s Day (November 2) occurs on a Sunday.
  • Whenever Holy Family occurs on December 26, it is postponed to December 30. This rule would not be new at all. It already applies in all years when December 25 is a Sunday (as will happen in 2022).
  • Holy Family is transferred to a completely different date—a solution that I would not prefer since the topics and the aforementioned Gospel readings of this feast are so deeply rooted in Christmas.

What do you think? The comment section is open for PrayTell readers’ ideas!

By the way: On December 26 I will envy our capital’s archdiocese: Saint Stephen is the patron saint of the archdiocese of Vienna and its world-famous Cathedral. Hence December 26 is a solemnity in the entire diocese, the feast of the Holy Family is postponed to December 30, and the Old Testament reading on December 26 is Sir 51:1—8.

23 comments

  1. I’d go for that. The birth narratives in Matthew and in Luke speak of both the holy Birth and the rejection of the One who has come. To commemorate Stephen immediately after the Nativity is to remind people that Jesus was and is a ‘sign that is spoken against.’ Stephen, the ‘First Martyr’ reminds everyone that the firstfruits of the Christ coming into the world is not the cosy portrait of the Holy Family but the challenge of the Cross.

    Stephen both adorns the birthday of the Lord (There’s a good hymn about this in the English Hymnal) and foreshadows the coming of Passiontide.

    It’s true that the selection of readings in the Lectionary redeems the Holy Family somewhat, but it also has the effect of anticipating Candlemas before its time and displacing the ancient readings for the sundays after Epiphany.

    AG.

  2. I could also see alignment with the reading of 1 John during the Christmas season, and use 1 John 5:1-5 for the reading after the Psalm, moving Acts to the first reading, as is done during the Easter season. The later January reading with those verses could be truncated or left as is.

    I’d observe we’ve lost the early Church’s elevated reverence for martyrs. It seems many Christians are looking for heroes for other reasons. Confirmation candidates look to persons with admirable qualities to which they aspire. Otherwise, we might also ponder people who have given great witness as they suffered long “martyrdoms” lasting years or decades. Martyrdoms of any sort are aligned with one’s own experiences or inclinations: John Paul II for his experience of Parkinson’s, the Salvadoran martyrs for their witness to justice.

  3. One solution not mentioned. Have the mass on Sunday December 26, commemorate both the Holy Family and St. Stephen. One could imagine using one opening collect in the usual place (say Holy Family) and then using the Collect of St. Stephen to end the bidding prayers. The first reading could be the St. Stephen excerpt from Acts and the Gospel could be from Holy Family cycle A, which has the common theme of opposition to Jesus’s reign on earth.

    And it should be noted that the same problem that arises when St. Stephen falls on the Sunday also occurs with St. John and the Holy Innocents.

    Another solution is to have all Feasts (not just those of the Lord) out rank Sundays of Ordinary Time and Christmas. That would also allow for the Feast of the Nativity of the BVM and St. Mary Magdalene to be celebrated on a Sunday some years. More radically have all Feasts and Solemnities that fall on Saturday or Monday be transferred to Sunday (with the Exception of St. Stephen, John and Holy Innocents). You don’t transfer the days every year so you still maintain a liturgical calendar and a sense of time, but the number of the faithful who participate in any particular feast day, say Mary Magdalene increases to roughly 2-3 years in every seven year cycle (depending on leap day).

    1. 1. Devin’s last suggestion is pretty damaging to the lectio continua of Ordinary Time. And there’s that discussion of the Lord’s Day in “Sacrosanctum Concilium” 106, which concludes, “Other celebrations, unless they be truly of overriding importance, must not have precedence over this day, which is the foundation and nucleus of the whole liturgical year.”
      2. I mistrust the combining of feasts. Neither is likely to get the attention it deserves.
      3. The Episcopal Church insists that all three post-Christmas saint feasts be observed as well as the First Sunday after Christmas. So this year in Episcopal churches, St. Stephen’s Day is December 27, St. John’s Day is December 28, and Holy Innocents Day is December 29. That would work for me.
      4. I’m also okay with the present Latin Rite practice of just letting each of these three feasts go uncelebrated in the Universal Church once every few years. In this half century, December 26 is a Sunday in 2004, 2010, 2021, 2027, 2032, and 2049. So St. Stephen is missing in six years out of fifty: how bad is that?

      1. and 2038, right? The pattern of week repetition with the effect of leap years in each 28 year solar period (except when omitted in certain centenary years) is some version of 6-11-6-5 years, so it seven times in that 50 year period.

        All that said, what I remember about Holy Family when I was growing up is it was one of the days when the sermon was all about contraception and abortion if the preacher was the pastor.

      2. Oops! Right, Karl. So that’s seven years out of fifty without a St. Stephen’s Day. I could still manage it.

      3. Paul,
        1) Do most of the people in the pews pay attention to the lectio continua of Ordinary Time? As for your SC quote, it still depends on what celebrations are “truly of overriding importance”.

        2) We already do so with the proliferation of non-liturgical calendar celebrations at Mass. Pentecost Sunday often is shared with Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, school graduations, etc. Obviously a presider can not preacher can’t preach on everything, but the mass orations should be able to speak for themselves.

        I am also fine w/ 3) and 4) but I feel that 2) is how most people naturally interact with a liturgical (or other) calendar. If a birthday falls on Easter, they may have a party another day, but they still wish Happy Birthday. They may even have cake that day as well.

  4. Thanks for this. As a retired pastor, I am “going it alone” on the 26th as the regular pastoral staff recovers from their Christmas Eve…..oh wait, I am the Liturgist for Christmas Eve at 3, 5, 7, and 8…..

    Anyway, I will include St Stephen’s feast in my Christmas “First Sunday of Christmas” on our Calendar. A nice time to be Lutheran and the freedom to celebrate pretty much as I like.

    1. I hope you had a Spirit-filled as well as busy Christmas Eve, Pastor Dave. Your schedule made me remember growing up a couple miles away from Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, which houses the largest Lutheran congregation in the world (~13,000 members). In my youth they had maybe seven or eight services Christmas Eve, every hour on the hour. They still do but now have two sites. I couldn’t imagine how they brought the cars in and out every hour. And I hardly think that one pastor had to take all those services. (For a while, the governor’s brother was senior pastor.)

  5. Btw, a reminder about any liturgies celebrated on the evening of December 25th this year from the USCCB’s CDW’s March-April newsletter:

    This year, the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) falls on a Saturday and is immediately followed on Sunday by the Feast of the Holy Family. In cases of consecutive feast days, there are often questions regarding which Mass is to be celebrated on Saturday evening and whether Evening Prayer II of the current day or Evening Prayer I of the following day is prayed at the Liturgy of the Hours. The May-June 2016 Newsletter presents a more thorough examination of these issues in “The Liturgical Celebration of Consecutive Feast Days (and Nights).”

    What day is celebrated is determined by two considerations: the rank of each celebration on the Table of Liturgical Days and whether each celebration is a holy day of obligation. In some cases, e.g., when the Assumption falls on a Saturday, the Mass of the Sunday in Ordinary Time is generally anticipated on Saturday evening because precedence is given to the “feast of precept” – even though the Assumption occupies a higher place on the Table of Liturgical Days.

    In the case of Christmas and Holy Family, both are days of precept (the latter because it falls on a Sunday), but Christmas occupies a higher place on the Table of Liturgical Days. Therefore, on the evening of Saturday, December 25, the Nativity Mass during the Day is celebrated with its accompanying readings from the Lectionary, and Evening Prayer II is prayed.

  6. Our Old Catholic body has embarked on a new translation of its liturgical texts. This will include a new calendar. For us, we are moving Saint Stephen to August 3, which has ancient connections with him.

    We are also moving a few other things around… Sunday within the Octave of Christmas will be Presentation, with the three elements of the presentation story told over the three years. The following Sunday will be Epiphany, followed by Baptism of our Lord. Holy Innocents and Holy Family will move to the week of Epiphany to keep the story in sequence, and to hopefully allow for a better observance, since nobody but the few non-travelers are usually in attendance at the holy days following Christmas.

  7. FWIW, it might be noted that there were 4 days between the bookends of the Christmas octave that were days of precept for centuries (subject to local variations), from at least the Decretals of Gregory IX in 1234 and continued by Urban VIII’s Universa per Orbem in 1642: St Stephen, St John, Holy Innocents, and St Sylvester. These would have been, until the transition to the early modern era when sovereigns acted to limit their effect, days of limits on labor of many workers (but far from all: homemakers, household servants who worked for others (Boxing Day being a relic of their one day off), farmers of domesticated animals (they need feeding/pasturing, and milk cows need milking, every day without ceasing….)).

  8. I would be inclined to move Holy family back to it’s pre-1969 position as the first Sunday after Epiphany. For one thing, this puts the historical events in order liturgically – Nativity, Epiphany, flight to Egypt (although Holy Innocents is then out of order).

  9. While we’re attending to St. Stephen, can someone fix the lectionary for his feast day to include Acts 7:60? The prescribed first reading is Acts 7:54-59 in the Vulgate. But 7:56 in my 1965 Vulgate is 7:56-57 in English Bibles. The result is that the U.S. lectionary concludes the reading with the Vulgate’s Acts 7:58, because in English Bibles, it’s 7:59. American Catholic congregations hear Stephen say “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” but not “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” That latter is pretty crucial to his standing as a saint. (Without it, arguably, he might be in hell. In the Gospels, there are steep penalties for lack of forgiveness.)
    For years I thought there might be some theological point to suppressing Acts 7:60 on St. Stephen’s Day. Then I discovered that it probably happened because nobody bothered to check the English text for the reading against the Latin. Nice work, guys.

  10. Correction: That first reading for the Feast of St. Stephen combines two passages from Acts: first 6:8-10 and then 7:54-59 (Vulgate).

    1. The UK lectionary has it right, ending:

      Then he knelt and said aloud, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’; and with these words he fell asleep. Saul entirely approved of the killing. [Jerusalem Bible translation]

      Editing it in 1969, we were always running to the Biblia Vulgata to check this sort of thing. Differences in numbering between Septuagint and Hebrew (mostly in the OT) were a plague to editors!

      1. I guess lectionary editors were more on the ball in the United Kingdom, Paul. In the Mass readings on St. Stephen’s Day in the USA, Canada, and Éire, Stephen does not die. I just wonder why that omission didn’t bother somebody from a spiritual standpoint, especially when so many devotional treatments of Stephen stress that he forgave his executioners with almost the same words Jesus used.
        Oh, well. Merry Christmas, all.

    2. I wonder what verses the official lectionary has. The Nova Vulgata ends the chapter on verse 60, so it may be a carry over of the verses without checking how the fell in the Nova Vulgata. I assume the Nova Vulgata is now the official text.

      1. The problem does seem to come from the 1981 Ordo Lectionum Missae for St. Stephen’s feast day which lists Act 6, 8-10; 7, 54-59 of the Nova Vulgata. It might just be a typo. The reading of that section of Acts for the Common of Martyrs in Easter and the 7th Sunday of Easter (Cycle C) both end in verse 60.

      2. The Ordo Lectionum Missae does not reference the Nova Vulgata. While the latter may now be the official Latin text of the bible, it is not to be used as a basis for liturgical translations.

        The difference in verse-numbering, as already stated, is normally down to Septuagint v. Hebrew versions, and occasionally to editorial lapses.

      3. Thank you. That is good to know. I knew that all the local language translations were made directly from the Greek and Hebrew, but I assumed that that the verses of the OLM, which does not contain the full text, referenced the Nova Vulgata and then I thought those producing the local lectionaries would look at that to see the equivalent section in their direct translations.

  11. One could add that the practice of not celebrating St Stephen on December 26th was not a result, per se, of the 1969 Calendar but a result of the 1960 Code of Rubrics. The 1962MR this year will observe the Sunday within the Octave of the Nativity with a commemoration of St Stephen at said Masses only.

  12. The comment by Paul R. Schwankl above with regrad to the Episcopal Church (in the US) raises an interesting point. In the great majority of churches within the Anglican Communion, either St Stephen alone was transferred (to December 29), leaving St John and Holy Innocents where they “belong”, or, following 1662, St Stephen was celebrated on the Sunday (Dec 26) and the Ist Sunday oif Christmas dropped. Of course, these churches do not have the Feast of the Holy Family to add to the complication!
    Personally I think the sole transfer of Stephen is the more elegant liturgical solution.

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