To some, this greeting may seem out of place. However, today is just as good of a day as Sunday to utter this sentiment of good will. Since Christmas is one of the two principle Feasts of the Church’s year (the other being Easter Sunday), Catholics elongate Christmas for eight days, or what is called an “Octave.”
When hearing the word “Octave,” most people will think of music before Christmas. The heart of western music is based on various forms of a seven note scale that concludes with an eighth note that is the same as the first, but at a higher pitch. Therefore, to play a full octave means that you begin and end at the same note, but the note you end with resonates differently than the first note. This simple pattern of eight notes in different keys has blessed our world with musical expressions some have experienced as beyond the ability of human reason alone.
In regard to liturgy, the idea of an octave has an identical pattern to an octave scale in music. You begin on Sunday, the first day of the week, and you proceed through the next seven days before arriving at the next Sunday, or the “Eighth Day.” In regard to Christmas, regardless of what day of the week it is celebrated on, Christmas Day is celebrated like a Sunday and then the octave proceeds to the feast of Mary, Mother of God. Obviously, a liturgical octave will take on a far different meaning than a musical octave.
The origin of a liturgical octave actually has more to do with Easter than Christmas. In the liturgical tradition of the Church, the Sabbath is the first day of the week. The Sabbath signifies the completion of creation and the day on which God rests and we are called to sacred rest and worship. From this starting point, we can see the seven days of the week as a metaphor for the unfolding or work (economy) of salvation in human history. This Economy of Salvation reaches its high point on the “eighth day” when Jesus rises from the dead. Therefore, we see on the eighth day an act of “re-creation,” healing what has gone wrong in the first creation or the triumph over sin through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
In regard to Christmas, the readings for each day of the octave recount the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. However, what also accompanies the octave are a series of feast days that may seem to be a little out of place. For example, the day after Jesus’ birth we celebrate the feast of Saint Stephen – the first martyr of the Church. Later in the week, we celebrate the feast of Saint John the Apostle and the Holy Innocence (the infants that were slaughtered in Herod’s desire to have the Christ child put to death). Later in the week, we arrive at two feasts that seem to fit better with Christmas: the feast of the Holy Family and Mary, Mother of God. Why this collection of feast days?
In regard to Saint Stephen, the theological reason for placing his feast day after Christmas is similar to the idea of a liturgical octave. On a human level, we can see martyrdom as the end of someone’s life for the sake of the Gospel. However, from a spiritual standpoint, we can also see martyrdom as a new beginning, a “re-creation” to eternal life which will be consummated at the resurrection with the reception of a glorified body.
The heart that is willing to peacefully embrace this radical gift of self is found in love, which brings us to the Feast of John the Apostle: aka the “Apostle of Love.” This title is given to John due to the numerous references to John as the beloved disciple. This divine love is set in contrast to a world that often chooses violence over love. Therefore, the Holy Innocence stand as a sobering reminder of how a world in which Christ’s love is absent often leads to violence and death in contrast to a “Kingdom of Love.”
These images then bring us back to the Holy Family, the icon of the Domestic Church, in which we are to find our first experience and society of love, while also, through the feast of Mary – Mother of God, embrace she who the Church holds up as the model for all Christians: Mary. Though these images may not come with Christmas lights and eggnog, they do provide a sobering reminder for us that a world “re-created” will encounter the lingering effects of a fallen creation that often acts with hostility toward authentic truth and love.
Your biblical sensitives should be fully engaged at this point, hearing the not so faint echoes of the creation narrative of Genesis behind these days of creation and re-creation. Some may want to argue that there is no connection between Genesis and “Octave Theology,” preferring to see the days of creation as a literal telling of six, twenty-four hour days accompanied by the Sabbath. The reality is that the theology behind the octave in closer to the original intent of the Genesis story than is a literalist interpretation of Genesis. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made note of this during his homily at the Easter Vigil on April 23, 2011.
At the Easter Vigil, the journey along the paths of sacred Scripture begins with the account of creation. This is the liturgy’s way of telling us that the creation story is itself a prophecy. It is not information about the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself came into being. The Fathers of the Church were well aware of this. They did not interpret the story as an account of the process of the origins of things, but rather as a pointer towards the essential, towards the true beginning and end of our being. (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Easter Vigil 2011)
I find this to be an illuminating insight: Is Genesis about events of the past or the trajectory of our future? Do we find in the chaos and darkness of our lives a sacred breath that reorders and brings light to our lives? Do we engage in the process of finding our dignity within this created world as children of God, made in God’s image and likeness? And do we find our lives oriented toward a Sabbath, an act of worship, an act of creation, in which we encounter the Christ child who’s life provides a pattern for our lives as his mother reveals to us a profound example of how to live these lives? In a real way, this week not only calls us to remember Genesis, but to celebrate Genesis, seeing within the infant of Bethlehem a starting point for our sacred journey, our paschal mystery, as we walk with the infant Christ through life, death, and do so in the hope of the resurrection.
So, in that spirit, Merry Christmas! May our celebration continue!