Octave Thoughts

Happy new year! Below a little something to mull over with a beaker of what you fancy. You will probably guess for what it was written.


We gather today to offer worship to God on what is both the first day of the civil year and the octave day of Christmas. Those of you who remember the liturgy of the Church before the changes after the Council will recall that back then the octave day of Christmas was the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. The feast we now keep this day, the divine motherhood of Mary, had been kept on 11 October. But it had only become a feastday for the whole Church in 1931. So today causes come confusion here at vespers because the pre-conciliar book we use for the chant has the full liturgy for the Circumcision as set for 1 January, and it is that which we sing rather than transferring the liturgy of the motherhood of Mary from 11 October.

This is one of the awkward moments that highlight some problems arising from the wholesale re-jigging of the liturgical calendar for the modern liturgy. Ember and rogation days are gone, as are the -gesima Sundays before Lent, and Passion Sunday within Lent. Indeed, Roman tradition has it that Blessed Paul VI, who approved all these changes, was surprised in 1970 to find that, on the first Monday after Pentecost (its first occasion in the new calendar), the vestments laid out for him were green not red. On enquiring about what seemed to him a startling error his attendants told him that the octave days of Pentecost had been abolished. Who authorised this?, asked the pope with a mix of indignation and shock. You did, came the reply.

But the change made for 1 January may not be quite so untraditional and disturbing as some of these others. The feast of the Circumcision of Jesus is, perhaps surprisingly, not an ancient feast. While Jesus was indeed circumcised according to Jewish law on the eighth day after his birth, it was the octave day of Christmas rather than the circumcision that the Church celebrated on this day until, at the dawn of the Renaissance, the Roman Church began to commemorate primarily the Circumcision on this octave day of Christmas. However, looking back further, we see that the Church had only begun to celebrate this day primarily as the octave day of Christmas from the seventh century. So what then did the Church celebrate on this eighth day after Christmas for more than six centuries?

It celebrated the birthday of Mary. The octave day of Christmas was in earliest times a feast day of Mary. The birthday of Mary moved to its current place on 8 September as a result of the introduction into the western Church of various Marian feasts from the eastern Byzantine Church in the seventh century. From the east we get the Assumption and the Annunciation, and the current date of 8 September for Mary’s birthday; which had been the octave day of the Byzantine new year. So the octave day of Christmas kept its Christmas focus until, in the late middle ages, a renewed devotion to the humanity of Jesus focused anew on his circumcision, a very human event. At any Jewish circumcision a boy receives his name, so late medieval Christians developed a devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, to complement his naming day, the Feast of the Circumcision.

So in re-establishing this day as a feast day of Mary, the Church has restored an ancient association of Mary with both the octave of Christmas and the new year. In his encyclical of 1974, Marialis Cultus, Bl Paul VI explained the significance of the restoration, and in doing so he drew out an extra dimension of today’s feast. Paul VI particularly decreed that Mary be invoked today as Queen of Peace, since it was through her that the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, entered visibly into our world.

In the plan of salvation Mary is a gateway through which God comes to dwell in the midst of his people, to tabernacle among them, as a human being. Mary’s “yes” to being the mother of the Son of God allowed the words of Psalm 24 to be fulfilled, “Lift up your heads, O you gates, that the King of Glory may enter in”. Today is a gateway for us to a new year, a year of greater peace, we pray, and a year of greater growth of Christ’s life within us. As Mary was the gate through which God in Christ entered the world, so too she is a fitting patron for us for as we enter a new year in which Christ will seek anew to enter more completely into our lives, and will knock again at the obstructed, perhaps even locked, gates of our hearts.

Yet some of us might find the words of John Donne more accurate than those of the Psalmist in describing the real state of our readiness to receive Christ:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.


John Donne

If we were to summarize this prayer-poem we might say, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak… and perhaps the spirit is not always even that willing. After what has been an extraordinary year, let us pray that in 2017, through the prayers of Mary, Christ might find an easier entry into our hearts and into our society, that he might need only to knock at and not batter down our doors.

As we pass across the threshold of a new year, the monastic community at Douai prays for you the blessing we heard in the first reading, which God commanded through Moses to be said by Aaron and the priests over God’s people:

The Lord bless you and keep you:
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you:
The Lord lift up his face to you, and give you peace.

[Yes, this was my homily in the abbey church today. It’s a bit of cheat post, but something to be going on with. Pax!}

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