January 1, 2017 — The Octave Day of Christmas — Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God
Today is a double feast so to speak, but the two feasts are closely associated. This is the Octave Day of Christmas, or the eighth day of Christmas. It always falls exactly one week after Christmas Day; Christmas Day is of course the first day, and then when we count to eight we have today. “Octaves” have been celebrated in the Church in relation to Holy days and feasts almost from the very beginnings of the Church.
However, today is also the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. In Jewish tradition a male child was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. On that same day the child was officially given his name. Thus, it was on this day that the Lord received the name Jesus. The third connection of these two liturgical celebrations is the addition of calling our Blessed Mother the Mother of God. Among Vatican II documents it is clearly stated, “Clearly from earliest times the Blessed Virgin is honored under the title of Mother of God.”
This feast is naturally a celebration of Mary’s motherhood of Jesus. It stems from the Greek word theotokos that translates as “She who gave birth to God.” That title was adopted at the First Council of Ephesus, held in the summer of 431 AD. Ephesus is in present day Turkey, and this was a gathering of Bishops; the Nicene Creed is another product of that Council.
Our First Reading from the Book of Numbers is familiar to most of us because of its inclusion of the prayer of Aaron that we may have experienced often within our lives as Catholics and Christians. Stewardship helps us understand and appreciate that we are gifted by God. What greater gift can we have beyond “The Lord let His face shine upon you”? To be aware that God may look upon us and be pleased, not because of who we are or what we may have done, but because we are in Jesus Christ, might be the largest source of peace and power in our lives. However, we need to realize that, and we need to live our lives as that is the reality.
Three times within this blessing we hear “The Lord.” In the first it is God the Father who blesses His children; then it is God the Son whose face shines upon us and brings us grace; finally it is God the Holy Spirit who communicates to us the feelings of God, and Who gives us peace as a result. There are no accidents in Scripture, and this threefold blessing from our three Gods in One is no accident either.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, our Second Reading, Paul states “God sent His Son, born of a woman.” That simple statement ties together with today’s feasts as well as to the initial reading and the Gospel message. Jesus came not just as God’s Son, but also as one born to a woman. Being “born of a woman” is a somewhat veiled confirmation of our belief in a virgin birth represented by the Immaculate Conception. Although Jesus called Himself consistently the Son of Man, Paul never states that Christ was born of a man and a woman. He was born of a woman with God as the Father. Paul, too, seems to confirm that Mary is truly the Mother of God.
Everything we celebrate today is brought to completion and to coordination by the Gospel Reading from St. Luke. As is often the case in these reflections, this reading is so rich in content and meaning there is no way we can truly do it justice in this short space. However, focusing on a specific statement within it often helps us explain it. It is the last few verses that put it all together: “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by an angel before he was conceived in the womb.” There we find the Octave of Christmas (eight days) and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mother of God.
The next verse from Luke speaks to “When the days were completed for their purification”… What a strong reference to the Octave of Christmas as well as to the Motherhood of God by Mary. It does not say “his” purification, but “their” purification. Mary, the Mother of God, and Jesus, the Son of God, were both pure.