An octave, from a musical point of view means eight notes: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. From a Church point of view, it means eight days. Beginning on Christmas day, the Church celebrates the Octave of Christmas. Why would we celebrate an octave at Christmas time and why eight days and not seven?
In the Old Testament, circumcision was sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, and thus between God and the Jewish people. The oath of this covenant was sealed by the act and sign of circumcision. It was on the eighth day that this important event took place.
From this we extract the concept of the octave: eight days. Three primary octaves reside on the Church calendar: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The earliest known celebration of an octave comes from the times of Constantine when the churches of Tyre and Jerusalem were dedicated in imitation of the dedication of the Jewish Temple which lasted eight days.
The Octave of Christmas is celebrated from Christmas day to January 1st, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Many see this as “just another feast day”. In fact, some grumble about it as an inconvenient feast day because it falls on New Year’s day – a holy day of obligation following a night of revelry and staying up way past bedtime. But this feast day marks an important clarification of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity and humanity.
The celebration of Mary, Mother of God, brought division to the Church. The Patriarch Nestorius strongly objected to her holding this title. He insisted that she was only the mother of Jesus’ human nature and not His divine. The root of this disagreement wasn’t so much a disagreement about Mary as it was about the nature of Christ, as is true of most Marian controversies. This disagreement gave rise to the heresy of Nestorianism: that Jesus has two divided natures, one human and one divine. A schism in the church resulted. The First Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 upheld the teaching of Mary as Theotokos, the God bearer, the Mother of God. We take for granted the hypostatic union – that Jesus is fully human and fully divine in one person – but a painful process brought the Church to this understanding which we hold today. Being that His one person embodies His two natures, and Mary as his mother gave birth to the whole, undivided person, it follows that she is indeed the mother of God. (for a succinct article about this controversy, click here.)
Therefore, the Octave of Christmas propels us forward to an important feast. It points to a Christological doctrine which affirms Christ’s nature and personhood and Mary’s role as Mother of God. The octave’s primary observation is by celebrating daily Mass in thanksgiving for Christ, with the gospel readings centered around the incarnation and the early years of Jesus’ life. The wisdom of the Church begins the octave with the birth of Jesus and ends it on the eighth day with the veneration of Mary’s role in the incarnation.
I invite you, as we approach the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, to consider extending the feast throughout the octave by rejoicing in the Incarnation, the coming of God as man – fully human and fully divine in the person of Jesus Christ – and the role of a lowly handmaid in His plan.
May love of Jesus take deep birth in your hearts on the feast of His nativity and may God hold you and those you love in the palm of His hand, Anne
Just in case you might like to know the schedule for this year’s octave. The following feasts fall within the octave: