A few days before Christmas I posted my thoughts on St. Stephen’s day, the fairly new feast of the Holy Family, and the rubrics around the Christmas Octave. The comments by PrayTell readers raised a lot of interesting aspects, and some of you even contacted me privately.
Some voted for the old practice of celebrating two feasts at once, as it was custom before the Second Vatican Council e.g. by doubling of the collects in the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours. I am not familiar with this practice from my own experience and I tend to believe that this is a little too much against the Council’s option for clarity and comprehensibility in the Roman rite—unlike e.g. the Byzantine rite where even Good Friday, Holy Saturday, or Easter Sunday can coincide with the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25 (with a lot of rubricistic challenges).
A colleague wrote to me that if we regard Jesus’ birth in a human family as a divine revelation, then the feast of the Holy Family should clearly have more weight than St. Stephen.
I had not known that not only some Eastern churches celebrate St. Stephen on December 27, but also some Anglican churches transferred St. Stephen to December 29 or the Sunday after Christmas.
And then even more oddities came to my mind:
I have never understood why the feast days in the Christmas Octave are celebrated in such a strange way: The Lauds are from the feast, the Vespers are from Christmas—I mean: Is this an octave or not? Is it a feast day or not? Is the morning different from the evening, and if so, then: why? All this looks very arbitrary as if the calendar wants too much at the same time.
And maybe the most profound: When Pope John XXIII. introduced the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, in 1960 for January 1, the Roman church refrained from the memorial of the circumcision and naming of Jesus; although on this very day the respective Gospel is still read according to the biblical chronology: the eighth day since Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:21). Recently several theologians and even bishops in Germany have pleaded for a reintroduction of the Solemnity of Naming and Circumcision of the Lord, not only because of its ecumenical tradition, but also with regard to the Jewish roots and theological background of Christianity that too many Christians have forgotten. With all due respect to the Mother of God: Do we really need an additional feast for her, especially when she is a part of the Holy Family anyway?
Eventually I had a completely new idea and I would like to know what PrayTell readers think of it: What if we created a more continuous and consistent Christmas octave where the liturgy brings up certain aspects of Incarnation as well as traditional feasts that have (more or less) always had a calendrical connection to Christmas?
For a full liturgical octave we need eight celebrations. We already have:
- Christmas itself (Dec 25)
- St. Stephen (Dec 26 in the current Roman calendar)
- St. John the Apostle and Evangelist (Dec 27)
- Holy Innocents (Dec 28)
- Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (Sunday)
My proposal is to re-dedicate January 1 to the Naming and Circumcision, so we have:
- Naming and Circumcision (Jan 1)
Now we need two more feasts, and here I would propose two new topics:
- Holy Forerunners from the Old Testament
- Holy Prophets Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22—38)
Old Testaments saints play a major role in many—mainly Eastern—liturgies, but the history of the city of Rome and the Roman influence on the entire Western world let them be mostly forgotten in occidental churches. A renewed Christmas octave could bring them back to Catholic consciousness.
Simeon and Anna might look a bit out of place here, and maybe there are better options. In the Biblical chronology they belong to February 2 as the 40th day since Christmas. I know medieval manuscripts that call that day “Sancti Simeonis,” but in the current order it is strictly regarded as a feast of the Lord. Those two prophets represent the connection between the Old and the New Testament, so they would be a good addition to a feast of the forerunners. And to be honest: The liturgical chronology in the Christmas season is not perfect anyway, since we celebrate Holy Innocents nine days before Epiphany, although the biblical events take place the other way round (Matt 2,1—18).
What would the liturgical rubrics be? Christmas and Circumcision would be solemnities, all other days could be celebrated as feasts. The Eucharist on the Sunday after Christmas would be celebrated as its respective feast day, but with the Creed and an additional reading (maybe Hebr 1:1—4). Thus parishes that come together exclusively on Sundays would be introduced into a diversified seven-year-cycle of theological aspects around Christmas—including a feast of Old Testament Saints which might be a salutary “aha-experience” to a lot of people. The Liturgy of the Hours could be made more like a consistent octave, e.g. with the same psalmody on every day in every hour, but variable hymns, collects, readings, prayers, and antiphons depending on the feast day.
A rather “conservative” Christmas octave could eventually look like this:
- Dec 25: Christmas (of course)
- Dec 26: St. Stephen
- Dec 27: St. John
- Dec 28: Holy Innocents
- Dec 29: Holy Family
- Dec 30: Holy Forerunners
- Dec 31: Sts. Simeon and Anna
- Jan 1: Naming and Circumcision
A more “ambitious” version, trying to circle theologically around Christmas in concentric circles, could look like this:
- Dec 25: Christmas
- Dec 26: Holy Family
- Dec 27: Holy Forerunners
- Dec 28: Holy Innocents
- Dec 29: St. Stephen
- Dec 30: Ss. Simeon and Anna
- Dec 31: St. John
- Jan 1: Naming and Circumcision
I could also imagine more radical solutions like transferring St. Stephen or St. John to other seasons of the year, or Holy Innocents somewhere after Epiphany, but maybe I am too cautious and boring for that. I also know other Saints are quite popular in some regions of the world, like Thomas Becket (Dec 29) or Pope Sylvester (Dec 31), so probably my proposal could and should be altered in certain countries, with Saints from “my” octave being transferred to other days between Jan 1 and Jan 6 or around Feb 2. But at least I hope that this proposal raises such a vivid discussion as my recent one!