The origin of this feast goes back to the tenth council of Toledo, in 656. The bishops who composed this holy assembly having found the ancient custom of celebrating the Annunciation on the 25th of March somewhat inconvenient, seeing that most frequently this joyous solemnity, coming in passion time, was transferred to the paschal season, and that these two liturgic periods offered too great contrasts with the mystery of the Word made flesh, they decreed that henceforth the Spanish Church should celebrate a feast in memory of the Annunciation eight days before Christmas, a solemn feast which should serve as a preparation for the birth of Our Lord. Later the Spanish Church wished to celebrate the feast of the Annunciation on the 25th of March with the universal Church, but nevertheless preserved a vestige of the custom which she had observed for several centuries. She ceased to celebrate the Annunciation of Mary on the 18th of December, but turned the piety of the faithful to the consideration of the divine Mother during the days which immediately preceded her delivery. A new feast was established under the title of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin.
“This feast,” says Dom Gueranger, “which is called Our Lady of the O, because of the great anthems chanted on these days, is celebrated in Spain with great devotion. During the eight days which it lasts a solemn Mass is sung early in the morning, to which all women with child, of whatever rank they may be, make it a duty to assist, to honor Mary in her waiting, and to beg her help for themselves.”
History of the Feast of Christmas, 25 December
The birth of Jesus Christ in the stable of Bethlehem, His adoration by the poor shepherds, are the objects of this feast.
Its French name of Noel, often used also in English, especially in old English hymns and carols, is the abridgment of the word Emmanuel, God with us. The prophet had given this name to the Messias, and this great solemnity of the Church saw its accomplishment. In the popular language the word Emmanuel did not remain unaltered; the feast of Emmanuel soon became the feast of Nouel, then Noel. It was at first celebrated with the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, for it was believed that Jesus Christ was born then. Pope Julius I having instituted the most exact researches, it was discovered that this great event took place on December 25th, and from that time the feast was transferred to that date; the Epiphany continued to be solemnized on January 6th. This change goes back to the beginning of the fourth century.
This explains a peculiarity of the octave of Christmas, as old as the feast itself; although it is an octave of the first order, it admits solemnities which are excluded from the octaves of Easter and Pentecost. The reason for this goes back to what has just been said. When the birth of the Saviour was celebrated on January 6th, the 26th of December honored Saint Stephen, the 27th Saint John, and the 28th the Holy Innocents. When the Nativity was finally fixed as the 25th of December, it was thought best not to remove these feasts. It is then in the octave of the Epiphany that the original octave of the Nativity of Our Lord is to be seen; hence it enjoys the same privileges as the other two great feasts of the year, because we count the Sundays after Epiphany, instead of those following Christmas, as those after Easter and Pentecost are counted.
Communion was for a long time obligatory at Christmas and Pentecost as at Easter. As a sign of the great joy brought to the earth by the birth of Emmanuel, abstinence is done away with on Friday when the feast falls upon that day.
The Feast of Christmas at Rome
On this day the Pope blesses the sword and ducal hat which he sends to the Christian princes who have best served the cause of the Church. At Santa Maria Maggiore, which has the honor of possessing the holy manger, this relic is exposed all day. At Saint Anastasia is offered to the veneration of the faithful the veil of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph’s chlamys, or cloak, in which the infant Jesus was wrapped at the moment of His birth.
In the Church of the Agonizing is exposed a piece of the swaddling-bands of Our Lord; at Santa Maria in Trastevere is shown near the high altar the place from which a fountain of oil miraculously burst forth at the birth of the Saviour. Let us add that at Saint Lorenzo, beyond the walls, on the feast of Saint Stephen, two rocks of his stoning are exposed. On the feast of Saint John, at Saint John Lateran, is shown the cup from which, at the order of Domitian, the apostle drank poison which did him no harm; the tunic with which he raised from the dead the emperor’s ministers who had tasted the same poison; and the chains with which he was bound when he was brought from Ephesus to Rome.
The Three Masses of Christmas
“The Catholic faith recognizes three substauces in Jesus Christ,” says Innocent III: “the divinity, the flesh, and the soul. The Scriptures speak of the three births of the Son of God: His divine birth in the bosom of His Father; His birth according to the flesh of the Virgin Mary; His spiritual birth in our souls. The mystery of these three births is represented to us by the three Masses which the Church says. The eternal birth of the Word is completely concealed from us; the prophet says of it: ‘Who could speak it?’ To express these impenetrable mysteries, the first Mass is said during the darkness of the night. The temporal birth of the Saviour is partly concealed and partly known; hidden as to the manner, known as to the fact. The hour of dawn, consecrated to the second Mass, well recalls this mixture of light and darkness. His spiritual birth is fully light; it is shown by the actions of him who has become the tabernacle of Jesus Christ. These mysteries are expressed in the third Mass, celebrated during the day.”
Since this is the meaning of the Christmas liturgy, at the first Mass let us adore with the angels the eternal birth of the Word; at the Mass at dawn let us prostrate ourselves with Mary and Joseph before the divine infant in the crib; at the Mass of the day let us join with the shepherds, and make Jesus the offering of a heart in which He may be born.
The origin of this devotion, practised in the bosom of many Christian families, and in the churches, goes back to Saint Francis of Assisi. Three years before his death the saint wished to celebrate at Credo the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord with all possible solemnity, in order to excite men to the most lively devotion for this mystery. But, to avoid all adverse criticism, he asked the permission of the Sovereign Pontiff, and having obtained it, he had a crib prepared, in which he placed hay and an ox and an ass.
Then the brothers were called together; the people on their part crowded there; the forest re-echoed with cries of joy; the numerous and shining candles lent their light to the holy night, which passed in chants of praise and sweetest hymns. The man of God remained close to the crib, penetrated with the tenderest piety, his face bathed with tears and his soul inundated with happiness. Solemn Mass was celebrated on the crib itself. A worthy soldier, deserving of credence, declared that he saw sleeping in the crib an infant of wonderful beauty, and Francis clasping him in his arms, trying to awaken him from his slumber. This sweet story is from Saint Bonaventure, author of the life of Saint Francis.
Feast of the Circumcision, 1 January
This is celebrated on the octave of Christmas. On this day Our Lord received on His innocent flesh the mark of sinful man and the seal of the children of Abraham. At the same time He received the thousandfold blessed name of Jesus. “Why is it,’ asks Saint Bernard, “that He is circumcised and still called Jesus, that is to say, Saviour? For circumcision is much more for him who needs salvation than for him who saves others. But this connection of the holy name of Jesus with the circumcision is not without its great mystery. It was in the first place to show that this child had not come to save except by blood; then to efface, by the glories of this august name, the apparent ignominy of the circumcision, as the opprobrium of the cross was in some sort effaced by the magnificent inscription over it; ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’ In fact, if we reflect upon this we shall find that the divine wisdom has nearly always joined in the mysteries of our redemption great abasement with grandeur, and humiliation with exaltation. If the Son of God takes an earthly mother, it is a virgin-mother, incomparably purei than the cherubim and seraphim. If He is born in a stable, He is there announced by angels, recognized by the shepherds, adored by the Magi, and feared by the proudest of kings. If He is forced to fly into Egypt, miracles make Him respected there, while the blood of the innocents renders His birth celebrated in all Judea. Even His death, wholly infamous as it appears, is made glorious by an eclipse of the sun and by the convulsion of all nature. It is then for the same reason that He is called Jesus in His circumcision. This name makes us consider Him, not as a sinner, but as He who taketh away the sins of the world.”
We will speak at greater length of this blessed name when we consider the feast established to honor it.
New Year’s Day
The feast of the Circumcision opens the civil year. This has not always been the case. In Europe generally, in the fifth century the year began on the 1st of March; in the eighth century the year opened on Christmas day; in the tenth century on Easter. Christian ideas were then dominant in the world. Charles IX., by an edict dated from the chateau of Roussillon, in Dauphiny, in the year 1564, ordered that it should begin on January 1st. There is something touching in the union of the first day of the year with the holy name of Jesus. That the days that follow may be blessed to us, the Church has marked the first hour with the name of salvation and redemption.
A tradition carries back to Tatius, one of the first kings of Rome, the custom of gifts made upon this day. The courtiers offered to this prince branches of vervain, gathered in the woods sacred to Strenia, the goddess of health, with the intention of calling down upon him her protection in the course of the year just beginning. The offering having brought happiness, the custom became general. Each year the people went into the woods of Strenia to gather vervain, considered by the ancients as a symbol of happiness, health, and affection, and it was offered to those whom they loved. To these gifts of good augury others were soon added of meal, figs, a little piece of money, or a date covered with a light layer of gold-leaf – an expressive wish to the person who received the offering, for by it was shown the desire to call down upon him in the course of the coming year sweetness and abundance in the things necessary to life. These primitive presents were replaced by provisions of all sorts, by clothing, furniture, and pieces of gold or silver. The name of Strenae was none the less left to the more delicate offerings.
Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January
This glorious date recalls Our Lord adored by the kings of the East. The feast instituted in honor of this mystery was for a long time blended with that of Christmas, under the name of Theophany, manifestation of God. It took that of Epiphany, or manifestation on manifestation, when the two solemnities were separated. This was really the second manifestation of the Saviour. The first had been to the Jewish people, represented by the shepherds; the second was for the Gentiles, the first-fruits of whom were brought to Jesus in the persons of the Magi. Following a venerable tradition, to which the painters of the catacombs gave an important authority, the Magi were three in number. “These,” says Dom Gu^ranger, “are the veritable ancestors of the gentile Church. One was from Chaldea, the second from Arabia, the third from Ethiopia. They represented at the crib the three races of humanity offering their homage to the new-born King.”
The Gospel speaks of their presents: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This mysterious number honored in the first place the Blessed Trinity in the Person of the Word Incarnate, but it also prophesied the triple character of the divine infant. He had come into the world to reign, and gold witnessed to His supreme power; He was to exercise a sovereign priesthood – frankincense, which should smoke in the priest’s hand, was a present worthy of Him; His death would open heaven – myrrh, a perfume reserved in ancient times to embalming, was there for the burial of the divine victim. “Where,” asks Saint Leo, “had they discovered the inspired nature of these gifts, these men who had not yet seen Jesus? While the star shone on the eyes of their bodies, more penetrating still did the ray of God’s light illumine their hearts.”
As to their names of Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, their use is too recent for us to adopt them. It would be as difficult to sustain the responsibility of doing so as it would seem to us bold to attack them directly. Their bodies, transported from Persia to Constantinople, and later from Milan to Cologne, rest today in the cathedral of that great metropolis, in a magnificent shrine, the most beautiful monument of the goldsmith’s skill of the Middle Ages.
The date of the 6th of January recalls to the love of the Church still other memories. On this day Our Lord, baptized by John, heard the voice of the Father proclaiming His divinity; on this same day He worked His first miracle in Cana, and Saint Augustine tells us that the 6th of January was also the day of the miraculous multiplication of the five loaves in the desert.
All these events make this feast the great manifestation of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and fully justify its name of Epiphany. However, the preference of the Roman Church is for the mystery of the calling of the gentiles. Nothing is more natural, since that mystery is supremely glorious for her. For has not Rome, the capital of paganism, become the head of Christianity by the vocation which on that day called all the nations to the light of the true faith?
The two other mysteries, the baptism of Our Lord and the wedding at Cana, have nevertheless a memorial in the office. Besides this the Church has consecrated a particular day to their celebration: the octave of the Epiphany to the baptism of Our Lord, and the second Sunday after Epiphany to the wedding at Cana.
The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves is not mentioned in the liturgy except in Lent.
In spite of the solemnity of this feast, its vigil is not a fast. We have not forgotten that formerly it made one feast with Christmas. Since their separation, the memory of their union has been preserved by a vigil and fast in common.
It would seem that the celebration of marriages, forbidden during the Advent period of mourning and penitence, would be resumed after the joyous feast of the Nativity. Why is the prohibition prolonged until after the octave of the Epiphany? Again, it is a trace of the ancient discipline. Christmas being celebrated on the 6th of January, the solemnizing of marriages was banished from the liturgy to the end of the octave, January 13th.
The kings of France, up to the fourteenth century, presented as the offering of this day gold, incense, and myrrh. In the Middle Ages the faithful offered them also, to have them blessed, and they then preserved them as a pledge of heavenly favors. This pious custom still exists in Germany.
Some authors have thought that they saw in the popular family festival of Epiphany a relic of paganism. It would seem to us more natural that our fathers wished to symbolize in the festival the wedding at Cana, and in the old custom of the king of the Twelfth-Night cake, the kings at the crib. A custom preserved in the mountains of Scotland comes to the support of this opinion. Instead of the bean in the Twelfth-Night cake, these people use a bit of myrrh, a grain of incense, and a piece of gold.
Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus
Pope Clement VII instituted this feast in the year 1530, at the request of the Friars Minor.
Our Lord was announced under many names by the prophets; He is called Admirable, the Counsellor, the strong God, Emmanuel, Prince of peace; and only the name of Jesus sees all heads bow and a feast established in its honor. Why this privilege? The name of Jesus, and that alone, comprises all that the others say; at the name of Jesus is presented to the mind all the mysteries of the redemption; the thirty-three years of Our Lord’s life are unrolled then before our eyes, with their labor, their anguish, their sufferings. This name shows us all, from the crib to the cross. Let us take care not to think that it is to the name itself that the Church has consecrated a feast. The object of this solemnity will be explained to us by the following passage from an ancient breviary: u And now comes, beloved brothers, the great solemnity in which our holy mother the Church honors at the same time all the mysteries of the universal redemption which are kept on the different dates of the Christian year. The word Jesus means Saviour. Let us apply ourselves, then, in the solemnity of this divine name, to the reparation of all the faults of negligence or weakness committed on each one of the feasts of Our Saviour, that at least once a year we may venerate by the solemnities of our hymns and our canticles a name so salutary. And that which we begin on earth may we continue eternally in heaven!”
The object of the feast being known, let us say something of the indulgences attached to the name of Jesus. For a long time the Angelical Salutation ended at the words: “Et benedictus fructus ventris tui” (“And blessed is the fruit of thy womb”). By the authority of Urban IV was added the name of Jesus, and an indulgence of thirty days was granted to all those who pronounce it in saying the Ave Maria. To increase the piety of the faithful, John XXII accorded thirty days more indulgence. Later Sixtus V opened the treasury of the Church to all those who invoked the name of Jesus. This indulgence was of twenty-five days. At the hour of death those who, having been faithful during life to invoke this name, pronouncing it then with the lips or the heart, may gain a plenary indulgence. (Decree of 12 June 1587)
The piety of the faithful is not satisfied to have unceasingly on the lips the name of Jesus; it delights in engraving it upon stone and cutting it in the sacred ornaments. It has invented a monogram, that is to say, a sort of figure which contains the letters of this name interlaced into one character. It was composed of its first three letters: IHS. This monogram comes to us from the Greeks, as the first two letters attest. The Latin form of the last letter is explained when we know that the Greeks of the Lower Empire used it frequently. The Latins placed a cross over the second letter, as if to say that Jesus has saved us by the cross. Saint Bernardine of Sienna made this monogram popular. He constantly wore it on his chest, surrounded by shining rays of gold. This relic, religiously preserved in Rome in the Church of Santa Maria in Ara Cceli, is exposed every year, on the feast of the saint, to the veneration of the faithful.
Purification of the Blessed Virgin and Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, 2 February
The name alone shows the object of this feast: Mary submitting to the purification prescribed by Moses, and making the offering to God of her divine Son.
The Church, by a solemn procession, honors the journey of the Holy Family to Jerusalem, and by the blessing of candles the manifestation of that Divine Light which Simeon sung. This last ceremony gave to the feast its popular name of Candlemas. In the hand of the Christian, the blessed candle symbolizes Jesus Christ, Whom the holy old man Simeon had the happiness to hold in his arms.
Purple, the color of mourning, worn in the blessing of candles and the procession, and saddening the joys of this feast, well expresses the sadness of Mary’s heart when Simeon announced to her “that a sword of sorrow should pierce her heart.” For the Mass the Church wears white, the color of joy, in remembrance of the joys of that day when, for the first time, the Messias received solemn homage. The manger had seen the shepherds and Magi prostrate at His feet, but today the Temple hears Him proclaimed the Light of nations and the glory of Israel.