Thursday, December 29, 2016

Some Rubrical Notes on the Octave of Christmas

The most ancient sacramentaries and lectionaries of the Roman Rite attest to an order for the Octave of Christmas which is essentially the same as that in the Missal and Breviary of St Pius V, with a few minor variants. The feasts of Ss Stephen the First Martyr, John the Evangelist and the Holy Innocents are absolutely universal on the three days after Christmas. (These are sometimes referred to as a group with the term “Comites Christi – Companions of Christ.”) The very ancient feast of Pope Silvester I (314-335) on December 31st, one of the very first non-martyrs to be venerated as a Saint, is missing from some manuscripts of the Gelasian Sacramentary. In many books, such as the Wurzburg lectionary, the oldest of the Roman Rite, the feast of the Circumcision is called “the Octave of the Lord.” There was also clearly some uncertainty about the Sunday after Christmas, which is missing from some books; the liturgical texts proper to it can also be found in some cases after January 1st, for the Sunday occurring between the Circumcision and the Epiphany.

A page of the Sacramentary of Corbie, (853-875; folio 12v), with the end of the Mass of the Vigil of Christmas, and the beginning of the Midnight Mass. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Latin 12051.
The only general addition made to the calendar for this period is the feast of St Thomas à Becket, whose feast is kept on the day of his martyrdom in 1170, December 29; his cultus was embraced so rapidly and universally that the absence of his feast from a liturgical calendar is treated as an absolutely reliable indicator that the manuscript predates his canonization in February of 1173.

By the time of the Tridentine reform, the custom was well-established, and had been for centuries, that the Sunday after Christmas was transferred to December 30th whenever it coincided with one of the major feasts within the Octave, as it does in most years. (In the Use of Sarum, it was permanently fixed to that day every year.) It may seem rather odd to us to celebrate Sunday on a Friday, as we would this year according the older rubrics, but the logic behind this custom was that all of the Masses assigned to the Christmas octave had a place, and the very ancient feasts from December 26-28 could never be disturbed.

This remained the custom until the 1960 reform of the Missal, when the Sunday within the Octave was given precedence over the Comites. Since the right of transference was removed from their rank of feasts (Second Class, formerly “Doubles of the Second Class), they are simply reduced to a commemoration on the Sunday. This poorly conceived change was actually made worse in the Novus Ordo, when the Sunday within the Octave was replaced by the feast of the Holy Family. The Novus Ordo also abolished all but a handful of commemorations, which means that last year, the feast of St John the Evangelist, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the author of the Gospel that proves the divinity of Christ, was entirely omitted in favor of a devotional feast which has only been on the General Calendar of the Roman Rite since 1921.

This year, however, the Sunday within the Octave is simply omitted, since Christmas itself falls on a Sunday, and the custom of transferring or anticipating Sundays was abolished in 1960. It should be noted that the text of the Introit of this Mass, “While all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne,” is generally believed to be at least in part the origin of the tradition that Christ was born in the middle of the night, and hence of the celebration of the Midnight Mass of Christmas. In the Novus Ordo, on the other hand, the Holy Family is transferred to December 30th.

Among the handful of commemorations left in the Novus Ordo, ironically, are the feasts of Ss Thomas à Becket and Sylvester, who were both already demoted to that rank in the 1960 reform, in favor of the ferial days within the Octave of Christmas; exceptions are made for St Thomas in all the dioceses of England, and for any churches dedicated to either of them, which still keep them as their patronal feast.
A very early reliquary of St Thomas, made at Limoges, France in the 1180s, showing the scene of his assassination in the lower part, his burial and the ascent of his soul into heaven in the upper. Devotion to him was incredibly powerful in the Middle Ages and afterwards, especially in England until the Reformation. (It is to his shrine that the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are making their way.) More than 40 such reliquaries are still extant.
The 1960 reform also changed the name of the Circumcision to the “Octave of the Nativity”, which was then abolished in favor of a newly invented “Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God” less than a decade later. (The Gospel of the Circumcision, Luke 2, 21, is included in the Gospel of the new feast. Some readers may remember that at the beginning of this year, a Jewish man suggested to the Pope during his visit to the main synagogue of Rome that he restore the feast of the Circumcision.)

This new feast is sometimes referred to as a Roman version of the “Synaxis of the Mother of God” which the Byzantine Rite keeps on December 26th. The latter observance, however, arises from a particular Byzantine custom by which several major feasts are followed by the commemoration of a sacred person who figures prominently in the feast, but who is, so to speak, overshadowed by another. These are usually, but not invariably, called “σύναξις (synaxis)” in Greek, “собóръ (sobor)” in Old Church Slavonic; that of St John the Baptist is kept on January 7th, the day after the Baptism of the Lord, that of St Gabriel the day after the Annunciation, that of the Twelve Apostles after Ss Peter and Paul, and that of Ss Joachim and Anne, the Virgin’s parents, on the day after Her Nativity. These are not the principal feasts of the persons honored by these “synaxes”, and one also finds in the Byzantine Calendar the feasts of St John on June 24 and August 29, of St Gabriel on June 11, the Apostles each on their own day (rarely the same as in the Roman Rite), and St Anne on July 26. The Byzantine Rite also keeps the feast of the Circumcision on January 1st.

The beginning of the Office of Christmas, from an Ambrosian Breviary printed in 1539. Clockwise from upper right are shown God the Father, the infant Christ with Mary, Joseph, the ox and the ass, the martyrdom of St Stephen, St John the Evangelist holding a cup of wine, the appearance of the Angel to the shepherds, the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, and within the central panel, another version of the Christ Child in the manger.
The modern reform of the Ambrosian Rite was done with a great deal less haste than that of the Roman, although as a result, there were several years of rather chaotic liturgical experimentation in Milan and the neighboring territories that use the Rite. The imitation of the new Roman customs became so widespread and thoroughgoing in places that the abolition of the Ambrosian Rite was seriously considered even at fairly high levels. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and those charged with the task of officially reforming it in many cases not only preserved its authentic customs, but also corrected some of the more egregious mistakes of the Roman reform.

In the modern Ambrosian Rite, therefore, the feasts of the Comites Christi are still celebrated even when they fall on a Sunday. The feast of the Circumcision is still kept on January 1st, part of the rationale for this being that the Sixth and last Sunday of Advent is to all intents and purposes a Marian feast, and a second solemnity of the Virgin so close to it was felt to be superfluous. The feast of the Holy Family is assigned to the last Sunday of January.

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