Every year, I’m always struck at how quickly the secular world gets “back to normal” after Christmas Day. After six weeks of being surrounded by Christmas sales, music, television specials and movies, when the calendar turns over from Dec. 25 to Dec. 26, it becomes difficult to find a Christmas that doesn’t amount to after-Christmas sales and merchandise returns. Yet, for the Church, the season of Christmas is just beginning.
The Church’s liturgical season of Christmas is quite unique. Beginning with what’s known as the Christmas Octave — an eight-day celebration of the Lord’s Nativity — it contains other feasts celebrating the manifestation that Jesus is Lord of the nations. We also find feast days of several saints whose life stories have a special significance to the season. The season of Christmas begins with the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord on Dec. 25 and ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, a movable feast, that can be either two weeks and one day to just shy of three weeks after Christmas. When viewed as a whole, the Christmas season united us to the beginning of the paschal mystery — the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.
Dec. 25: Christmas Day
The liturgical celebration of Christmas is spread out over four distinct time frames: a Vigil, a Mass at night, a Mass at dawn and a Mass during the day. Each liturgy has its own set of prayers and readings. The different Gospels assigned for these Masses all speak of the variety of people affected by the Savior’s birth — in short, everyone. Jesus came to save us all.
Dec. 26: Feast of St. Stephen
I have always found it interesting that within the octave of Christmas, in fact, the very next day, is the feast of a martyr. St. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church, and he is also the first martyr. Celebrating this feast on the day after Christmas reminds me that the only way to follow Christ is by taking up one’s cross and following him through a life lived out in loving service to one another.
Dec. 27: Feast of St. John
The third day of the octave of Christmas is the feast of the apostle and evangelist St. John. He is often regarded as the beloved disciple and believed to be the author of the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation and three New Testament letters attributed to his name. St. John teaches us that “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) A cultural tradition associated with the Feast of St. John is a blessing of wine because John’s Gospel is the only Gospel that includes the miracle of the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus changes water into wine.
Dec. 28: Feast of the Holy Innocents
Following the Feast of St. John, we have the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This feast commemorates the incident described in Matthew’s Gospel (2:13-18) when King Herod sought to eliminate any threat to his power by killing all the children who fit the profile of the newborn king — that is, any male child of 2 years or younger. We know that Jesus survives because of the heavenly intervention of an angel who visits Joseph in a dream, telling them to flee to Egypt. Two major issues become the focus of the Church this day: immigration and abortion.
Feast of the Holy Family
We have few details about Jesus’ early life before his public ministry, but those that we do know relate to his familial relationships. We know from the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel that he grew in the ways of faith and traveled with Mary and Joseph to the temple in Jerusalem for the annual feast of Passover. The Church holds up the Holy Family as a model for all families, as well as for all human relationships. Pope Benedict XV first introduced the feast to the Church in 1921, and it is celebrated on the Sunday between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, unless both of those days fall on Sunday (like they do this year), in which case it is celebrated on Friday, Dec. 30.
Jan. 1: Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God
The octave of Christmas ends with the celebration of the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. It is a holy day of obligation, except in the United States when it falls on a Saturday or a Monday. This solemnity celebrates Mary as the Mother of God, whom we also call the Theotokos, a Greek title for Mary meaning “God-bearer.” For “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” (Galatians 4:4) Because Mary found favor with God, as the Collect for this Solemnity says, God “bestowed on the human race the grace of eternal salvation.”
Solemnity of the Epiphany
The Solemnity of the Epiphany is traditionally celebrated Jan. 6, the 12th day of Christmas; however, in the United States it is transferred to the Sunday between Jan. 2 and 8. It commemorates the manifestation of Christ to the Magi, who represent how Christ came to save all humankind, not just the Jewish people. The gifts they bring — gold, frankincense, myrrh — represent Christ’s identity: the King of the Universe and deity worthy of our true worship; and the bitter reality that this baby, born in a manger, would grow up to die for us and our sins.
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
The Christmas season ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which usually falls on the Sunday after Epiphany, unless the transference of Epiphany falls on Jan. 7 or 8, in which case, the Baptism is celebrated the following day on a Monday. This feast commemorates the day when Christ formally accepts his mission as the Lord and Redeemer by receiving John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance. As Jesus comes up from the waters of the Jordan, he is identified as God’s own son by the Father’s voice resounding from an opened sky.