I am often struck at the impatience with which some folks end their celebration of Christmas. Today, I walked into the local hospital, when I commented that the registration area looked like it had been remodeled, the admitting nurse looked at me with a blank face and replied, “oh, yeah, they took down all the Christmas stuff!” The reader should note that the Christmas “stuff” had been up since around Thanksgiving – coinciding with what we, in North America, have come to experience as “the Holiday Season.” Not five minutes later I was in the chaplain’s office reviewing the Catholic census when one of the hospital staff chaplains asked, “Father, did you have a nice Christmas?” My cheerful response was, “Yes, and I am still having it, I celebrate Christmas for at least eight days!” “Oh,” he said, “taking a page from the Jewish playbook?!” I stopped for a moment to think about it, and said, “something like that.” I had parishioners to visit and didn’t have time to talk to him about the concept of an “”, but his comment set me to thinking about the origin of this ancient Christian practice of observing certain as “ .”
Currently, only two majorenjoy the prolonged celebration of a liturgical – those of Our Lord’s Nativity and His Glorious Resurrection. When the liturgical calendar was revised after the second Vatican Council, many such were suppressed, including one for Pentecost, for Epiphany, and even Corpus Christi, among many others. Whatever one may think of the suppression (or celebration) of these , we should stop to consider the origin of the liturgical and its significance for twenty-first century Catholic Christians.
The chaplain’s response set me to thinking of a celebration I had attended earlier in the week. A Jewish friend with whom I play ice hockey had invited me (among others) to his home for an informal celebration of Hanukkah. Many Christians are only vaguely familiar with the custom, and usually only then as it often coincides, roughly, with out celebration of Christmas. It is not my intention to go into great detail regarding Hanukkah, but suffice it to say, it is a celebration of the triumph of theover the who had defiled the Temple and compelled the Jews to abandon their proper worship of the One True God, and to embrace the worship of the Greek pantheon of false gods. Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days to commemorate that a single day’s supply of oil lasted for eight days. To this day, among Jewish families, Hanukkah (a festival of lights, often symbolized by the menorah – fashioned on the menorah or lampstand from the Temple – is celebrated not for a single day, but for eight days.
It is not unreasonable to consider that the concept of an see Leviticus 23:34), but the resurrection brought about another reason for the observance of liturgical . In the Early Church, Sunday was reckoned to be the first day (the day of creation) but following upon the Sabbath (of seventh day) early Christians observed it also as an eighth day – the day when Jesus Resurrection from the dead turned the world upside down! So great was this change that it led the Church to move the observance of the Sabbath to the Dies Domini or “Day of the Lord.” Let us also recall that just as Jesus had appeared to the Apostles in the in the evening of His Resurrection and again, eight days later when they were gathered once more. Thus the Christian liturgical has its roots in Jewish observance, but developed as a natural means of celebrating the Mysteries of Our Lord., or a period of eight days, was familiar to the apostles during the formation of the early Church. In addition to the Maccabbean victory, the apostles, all Jewish, would have also been familiar with the observance of the eight day festival Sukkot or “Feast of the Tabernacles” (
If we wish to understand the significance of the, it is simply an extension of the of whatever mystery is being observed. By observing the the Church is saying, in effect, that this mystery (be it the or the Resurrection – the only two official liturgical in the [ordinary form] Roman Calendar) is too great to be celebrated for a mere day. She says this Mystery must be unfolded, and we need time to do that. Liturgically speaking, the prayers of the Mass and of the Office, the readings chosen for these services, typically “unpack” various aspects of these Mysteries and help us to celebrate more fully! Yet the goes a bit further. Just as the concept of Sunday as “an eighth day” expresses the intersection of time and eternity, so the celebration of a liturgical also helps us to understand the eternal significance, that the (or the Resurrection) is not a mere earthly event, but that these mysteries represent the confluence of time and eternity.
Just as we celebrate such(and their respective ) within the Church (through official forms of worship) so we should also celebrate them in the home, in our daily lives. While it is not possible to go “full bore” for eight days, with feasting, one may, and should, insert some element of festivity into the principal meal. We should use these days (whether of Christmas or Easter) to invite family and friends to share in our celebration. In the case of Christmas, so many well-meaning people begin celebrating “the season” on Thanksgiving day and are, understandably exhausted by the start of Christmas. If we re-order our lives around the liturgical calendar, we will begin observing the month of December as a time of preparation – primarily interior preparation – for the coming of our Lord, then when Christmas actually arrives we will be poised to shift into the more festive celebration.
Finally, I would like to offer a reflection on the rich tapestry of feasts which are observed within the Christmas. Unlike the Easter , which trumps the sanctoral calendar (feasts of various saints), the Christmas , falling every year on the same dates (12/25-1/1),encompasses various saints feast days. Days 2 and 3 of the commemorate first century saints – St. Stephen, protomartyr, and St. John, apostle and evangelist. The fourth day of the (December 28) is in commemoration of the Holy Innocents – those children who were massacred by Herod in his rage as he sought to destroy Jesus. Day 5 is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, the twelfth century who was martyred for his defense of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. The Sunday within the is in commemoration of the Holy Family of Nazareth (This year, since the begins and ends on Sunday, the Holy Family is transferred to Friday, December 30). Finally, the penultimate day of the is in commemoration of St. Sylvester, the fourth century pope whose reign coincided with the Constantinian reforms of that period. I mention each of these saints and/or mysteries as a means of considering that in the lives of His followers, we see the impact of the Divine Word who became man and was born at Bethlehem. We might wish to imagine a nativity scene which includes men and women from throughout the twenty-one centuries of the Church whose lives, motivated by the Mystery of the , had an impact upon the world around them. In this, we can grasp the call for our lives to be energized, motivated, by the liturgical celebration of these same mysteries, but lives whose impact is felt far beyond the doors of the Church, or a single calendar day! Merry Christmas!!!