Short Commentary – His Birth, Our Cross: The Liturgical Calendar and One Last Belated Word on Christmas

If it is not too late to say one last word involving Christmas (for many of you it probably is), I ask you to please lend an ear one more time to something festive. Even if it is too late, still read on because, hey, we (most of our audience, presumably) are Catholic right? Besides – the Christmas season only really ended with the celebration of Epiphany in the revised post-Vatican II liturgical calendar which wasn’t that long ago. And for those who go to the Traditional Latin Mass, which runs accord to the 1962 Roman Missal, it’s technically still Christmastime till the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus on February 2 (Candlemas). So, with that being said:

Merry Christmas!

“Nice try, but it’s already mid-January,” you say?

To that I say, well, Jesus was only born a couple or so weeks ago, . . . or has He sprouted up fully-grown in your hearts already? In that case, get ready for what’s going to happen at the end of Lent this year. (This will be only a short commentary, I promise.)

Anyway, what I want to touch on is dealing with what happens on the days immediately following December 25 during the Octave of Christmas (December 25-January 1) in the United States’ version of the Church’s liturgical calendar. I have been Catholic for four years now, but I only really took notice this time around of something that I feel the Church’s calendar clues us in on. I altar serve regularly at my parish, so I always try to have an extra eye out on the liturgical calendar so I can be in the know about we are going to be celebrating. What I noticed was this: Christmas, perhaps the most joyful time of the year, sure is followed by a lot of death. Don’t follow me? Just take a look at the feast days that are right after Christmas day.

December 26 – St. Stephen, the first martyr

December 28 – Holy Innocents, martyrs

December 29 – St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr (optional memorial)

The liturgical calendar doesn’t play around. As soon as we get through celebrating the birth of the One who gives true life to a world that is dead in sin we are plunged head-long into feast days of blood. On Christmas day, after weeks of Advent’s penitential violets with a dash of rose mixed in, we finally bring out the cheerful liturgical whites and golds only to shutter them all away just as soon as we brought them out. The day after Christmas the whites of rejoicing are replaced with the reds of sacrifice. The life of Christ is shrouded for a short time by the celebration of death with the only reprisal being the feast day of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist on December 27. And the deaths we are celebrating are not ones where someone drifted peacefully off into their eternal reward. These are the ones in which there was a victim and a slaying. St. Stephen (December 26), the first Christian martyr for Our Lord and one of the original seven deacons of the Holy Church, was stoned outside the walls of Jerusalem. The babes of Bethlehem two and under were slaughtered without mercy under the order of Herod, and this is commemorated with December 28’s feast of Holy Innocents. Finally, (even though it is an optional memorial) December 29 is the feast day of St. Thomas Becket who was murdered by the agents of King Henry II in 1170 for defending the rights of the Church in England.

First, for a moment I thought it was a little strange that so soon after Christmas the tone changes so drastically. During Advent I awaited the great event of the birth of Our Lord. There came a time where I even craved the seasonal change of colors that would come signaled in the beauty of the white veil that would be draped in front of my parish’s tabernacle and in the awesome gold and white chasuble that Father would don for the first time in ages. But, shortly after I began to find the liturgical calendar’s juxtaposition between the celebration of the joyful birth of Jesus and the commemorations of martyrs to be very compelling. Then, I thought about how much this “coincidence” points to something crucial about the nature of the Christian life itself. The peculiar placement of martyrs’ feast days right after Christmas triggered a thought on the radical implications that are placed upon those who would dare to bear the name of and live a life for a Man who was born to die. Those implications are summed up in words I penned in another Christmas-related article I wrote for Laudare back in 2016:

The first Christmas sent Jesus on the way to the Cross, and thus the small Christmases that occur during Mass must send us on our way to ours.” [1]

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; therefore, He lived a life that vividly showcased the Way, the Truth, and the Life for all that would choose to follow Him. Of all the infinite things that could be said about His life, there is one aspect that I want to touch on. He showed by His life that the best way to live the Way, the Truth, and the Life is to die. Jesus had a mission from the very moment of His Incarnation, and that mission was the dreadful destiny of the Cross. By His life, death, and resurrection He redeemed mankind; thus, His birth is inseparably connected to His death. His life is indivisible from His Cross. Our faith teaches us that Jesus was not only truly God but also truly man, and the Bible informs us that He was tempted like we are but never sinned (Hebrew 4:15). Therefore, Jesus faced all the little and great obstacles that the flesh presents to us when trying not only to do God’s will but also truly love our fellow man despite humanity’s flaws and sins. Nevertheless, He died to the lures of a tempted flesh countless times during His whole life leading up to His great death at Calvary always submitting to the Father’s will. Thus, the major implication upon the life of every Christian is to die to self and the world and to live for both the Jesus at the right hand of the Father and the Jesus next to us in our neighbor for the sake of the salvation of all – no matter how hard, no matter what it may cost us. This was all started by the first Christmas and led without deviation to the first Good Friday. And if you had the chance to speak with God before the Incarnation occurred in time and told Him how much you loved the idea of His Son being born on Earth in the arms of a loving Family but disliked the plan of His death at the hands of a hateful mob, you would have never gotten Christmas in the first place. As a Christian, you cannot expect to live the Christian life without all the little deaths that must occur in between the time of your new birth at baptism and the reception of your heavenly reward. During that time you must pick up your cross (Matthew 16:24), persevere (Matthew 24:13), and head to your calvary (small “c” for us). And sometimes that calvary is a martyrdom (be it a white martyrdom through patient longsuffering or a red one hurried by the avarice of man). Just as His birth led Him to His Cross, our new birth through baptism must lead us to ours.

Finally, how all this relates back to the calendar is that when we think of the birth of Christ we must also hold a place in our hearts in which we contemplate where His birth will ultimately lead – the Cross – and the inseparable nature of the two. This is symbolically represented in the placement of martyrs’ commemorations right after Christmas as if God and His Church are reminding us of the reality of the Christian life, a reality of self-denial and death to the flesh and the world. The nod given by the Church through her calendar to let us know it is time to celebrate the Incarnation is soon followed by a subtle point to the sacrificial giving up of self so masterfully shown in the lives of the martyred Saints who emulated their Lord. It is almost as if the Church in her wisdom is exclaiming to us, “Yes! Rejoice! Christ is born! Celebrate it,” but then hints to us that there is a real way to not only celebrate it in the present moment but also to live what the Incarnation means for us in our daily lives. The Church then proceeds to point to the lives of martyrs saying, “This, my children, is the way.”

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[1] Farr, Justin. “The Christmas in You: A Christmastide Reflection.” Laudare.org, 2016.

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