THE OCTAVE DAY OF CHRISTMAS:
SOLEMNITY OF THE VIRGIN MARY
USCCB links to all three readings
The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.
I am indebted today to both R.T. France (see home page) and the liturgist Adolf Adam’s The Liturgical Year in sorting out not only the richness of Sunday’s Gospel but also the rather complex history of the octave day (or eighth day) of Christmas. In my own lifetime, the liturgy of January 1 has been celebrated under three titles. Prior to the reforms of Vatican II, January 1 was celebrated as a holy day of obligation under the title of the Feast of the Circumcision, with the Gospel reading of Luke 2: 21, which happens to be the last sentence of our Gospel this weekend. (See above, second paragraph.)
The history of the New Year’s observance is far more ancient, predating the Christian era. We can thank Julius Caesar. In 46 B.C. Gaius Julius changed the date of the opening of the Roman civil year from March 1 to January 1. Pagans then began to celebrate the opening of the new year with festivals in honor of the god Janus (hence January). From all accounts these celebrations were marked by superstitions and “gross orgies” in Adam’s word—one wonders if other lesser days were marked by “routine” orgies in Rome. By St. Augustine’s day, c. 400 A.D., Christians were celebrating a New Year liturgy titled ad prohibendum ab idolis and I won’t insult your intelligence with a translation. Augustine’s quote is intriguing: “Let them rush to the theater: you should rush to church. Let them get drunk; you should fast.” (Adam, p.139) For the next several centuries the early days of January were penitential in the Latin Roman West.
That said, there developed a variety of feasts throughout the Christian world celebrated on the octave day of the Lord’s birth. Rome itself adopted the Eastern Church’s practice of observing the Anniversary of the Mother of God. But as early as the sixth century Spain and Gaul (modern France) began the year with a feast marking the Lord’s Circumcision. By the early Renaissance the Spanish/Gallic feast was adopted in Rome and became the feast that we old timers recall, along with all the embarrassing catechetical questions that accompanied it.
The 1969 calendar restored the January 1 observance to “The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God,” and the missal incorporated the text from Luke 2 as posted above. In his commentary on the Gospel, R.T. France (see home page) places emphasis upon the reactions to the newborn son of the Holy Spirit. In the text at hand there are two distinct reactions: the shepherds’ joy at what they had seen with their own eyes and heard from the angels a few lines earlier; and Mary’s enigmatic reflections in her own heart upon the profound implications of what has happened.
France observes an ongoing contrast in Luke’s infancy narrative between the high and the mighty, on one hand, and the poor and the outcast on the other. Earlier, when Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, she prayed in thanksgiving to her God who “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52) The powerful Roman leaders cited that sacred night in Luke (2:1-2) are impervious to the events at Bethlehem because, simply put, God did not bother to tell them. Instead, his angels (“messengers”) tell the great tidings to shepherds. France describes shepherds as poor day laborers who tend the flocks of other wealthier neighbors by night as second jobs to supplement their meager existence. The text immediately preceding Sunday’s reading quotes the angels’ message that peace will come “upon those he favors,” clearly a reference to this cash-strapped substratum of a powerful empire.
In several ways, the documents of Vatican II speak of Mary as the first Christian or the paradigm of the Christian believer. This is important to bear in mind as we consider just what Mary might be pondering in her heart, as well as what we ought to be pondering ourselves. For one thing, the multiple messages of angels in Luke’s infancy narrative leave no doubt that the child born in Bethlehem would turn the world upside down, and while there would be a glorious ending to the story, the process would be painful and costly. Later in Luke’s narrative Mary is told that her son would be the cause of the rise and fall of many, and that “her own heart would be pieced with a sword of sorrow.”
Many Scripture scholars view the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew as miniature lives of the adult Christ, including reference to his Passion. The feast of Mary this weekend is certainly a tribute to her unique faith and role in the mystery of the Incarnation. But equally true, her feast is an identity statement of the Church and each of its members. The Evangelist John, whose feast happens to fall today, does not have an infancy narrative as such. But John does describe the later suffering of Mary—her sword of sorrow--when, standing at the foot of the cross, she is splashed with the water and the blood that spilled from her dead son’s corpse as he hung upon the cross. Indeed, she and we have much to ponder as we behold the Babe of Bethlehem.