TSD 38: Ho Ho Holy Days

Merry Christmastide

This is a big one, so let’s get right to it:

These Seven Days…

…in the Ordinary Form

It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The readings are Isaiah 7:10-14, Romans 1:1-7, and Matthew 1:18-24.

As we approach Christmas, we turn our focus here from Mary and John the Baptist to Joseph. Both John Chrysostom and Augustine have beautiful reflections on the virtues of Christ’s foster father, regarding his intention “to divorce [Mary] quietly”:

Therefore being just, that is kind, merciful, he was minded to put away privily her who according to the Law was liable not only to dismissal, but to death. But Joseph remitted both, as though living above the Law. For as the sun lightens up the world, before he shews his rays, so Christ before He was born caused many wonders to be seen. [Chrysostom]

If you alone have knowledge of a sin that any has committed against you, and desire to accuse him thereof before men, you do not herein correct, but rather betray him. But Joseph, being a just man, with great mercy spared his wife, in this great crime of which he suspected her. The seeming certainty of her unchastity tormented him, and yet because he alone knew of it, he was willing not to publish it, but to send her away privily; seeking rather the benefit than the punishment of the sinner. [Augustine]

…in the Extraordinary Form

It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The Epistle is 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 and the Gospel is Luke 3:1-6.

In the old rite, on the other hand, we stay with John the Baptist in the Gospel, but turn to Mary in the proper of the Mass, specifically the Offertory, to which no translation is needed:

Ave Maria, gratia plena: Dominus tecum: Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui.

Regarding the readings, the St. Andrew Missal describes the complementarity of mercy and justice in the First and Second Comings of Christ:

Allusion is made in the Gospel to the coming of mercy proclaimed by St. John the Baptist, and in the Epistle to the coming of justice at the end of time.

Here’s that lovely verse, 1 Corinthians 4:5:

Therefore judge not before the time; until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts; and then shall every man have praise from God.

…in both forms of the Roman Rite

[Christmastide traditionally begins on Christmas Eve and lasts through January 13, the Octave Day of the Epiphany. It’s a busy season; we’ll discuss each day briefly.]

Tuesday, December 24, is the Vigil of the Nativity of Our Lord. Traditionally a day of fasting in preparation for celebrating our Lord’s birth (often broken with a post-vespers feast), Christmas Eve is perhaps the last remaining vigil in the public consciousness (even Holy Saturday has fallen through the cracks). This is perhaps the day of the year, even more than the 25th, where the Christian legacy of, well, Christendom remains most visible—even as so much of it has been co-opted by consumerism.

In the Ordinary Form, the Gospel for the Vigil includes the notoriously unpronounceable genealogy of Christ. John Chrysostom rebukes those who complain about this seemingly extravagant list of names:

And do not consider this genealogy a small thing to hear: for truly it is a marvelous thing that God should descend to be born of a woman, and to have as His ancestors David and Abraham.

The old rite includes this beautiful introit verse, which is reprised in the gradual, from Exodus 16:

Hodie scietis, quia veniet Dominus, et salvabit nos: et mane videbitis gloriam ejus.

This day you shall know that the Lord will come, and save us: and in the morning you shall see His glory.

Wednesday, December 25, is The Nativity of Our Lord. There are, in both rites, three different Masses for Christmas Day. To be clear, these are not the same Masses at different times, but completely different Masses that emphasize different aspects of Christ’s Nativity. Here’s the St. Andrew Missal on some of the history and meaning behind this:

By a special privilege, on the Feast of Christmas a Mass is celebrated at midnight, followed by another at dawn and a third in the forenoon. As the Fathers remark, it is at the moment when the sun has reached the lowest point of its course, and is so to speak re-born each year, that the “Sun of Justice” is born again every year at Christmas.

There is some welcome continuity between the old and new lectionaries on this day, with the Epistles and Gospels nearly matching at all three Masses. The Gospel selections, especially, match the times of day, bringing the narrative drama of the accounts to life:

  • Midnight: Luke 2:1-14. The iconic Nativity story, commemorating Jesus’ nighttime birth.

  • Dawn: Luke 2:15-20. The revelation of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, matched to the first rays of the day’s sunlight.

  • Daytime: John 1:1-14/18. The full flowering of the meaning of the Incarnation is laid bare in what is usually, in the Extraordinary Form, the Last Gospel.

A chaotic depiction of the Nativity, in contrast to the peaceful and intimate versions (see below) that have become the standard, by Charles Le Brun.

Compare to the contemporary seventeenth century version—also called Adoration of the Shepherds—by Gerard van Honthorst.

Thursday, December 26, is the Feast of St. Stephen. The first martyr (besides the Holy Innocents, below), St. Stephen has always held a special place in the Christian imagination. His feast is placed here to remind us of the stakes of our calling to witness to the Incarnation, and to commemorate Stephen’s primacy among His witnesses. Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 is one of the most remarkable pieces of oratory in all of Scripture:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.

We should not read this merely as a condemnation of the ancestors of Stephen’s persecutors, but as a condemnation of millennia of hatred and persecution of holiness. It isn’t about them, but about us.

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The Stoning of St. Stephen, by Annibale Carracci. I’m especially interested in the casualness of the onlookers.

Friday, December 27, is the Feast of St. John the Apostle, another special saint who is remembered in these special days. The “beloved disciple” not only had a special relationship with Christ during the Messiah’s public ministry, but (like Stephen) was a primary witness to His life and truth—in John’s case through the written word. Thus he is celebrated here, as an angelic herald not unlike those who brought the news of the Nativity to the shepherds.


This Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary, St John and St Mary Magdalene by Anthony Van Dyck from the late 1610s now rests in the Louvre.

Saturday, December 28, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The details of Herod’s crime in an attempt to snuff out a threat to his power are not known. Extravagant early claims of tens of thousands of murdered boys are almost certainly specious; the Catholic Encyclopedia reports that “the number of these children was so small that this crime appeared insignificant amongst the other misdeeds of Herod,” who was notoriously cruel. The entry continues with this beautiful reflection: “The Church venerates these children as martyrs (flores martyrum); they are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution; they died not only for Christ, but in his stead.”

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This was my father’s childhood parish. Just as I began writing this section, he called to tell me my grandmother—his mother—likely has only a week left in her earthly life. This has been coming for some time. Please remember Audrey in your prayers.

Those Seven Days

While there are aspects of this (very long) piece I don’t care for (such as the focus on evolutionary psychology and the big show of being a French anti-prude, oh la la), this is an incredibly comprehensive and indispensable case against internet pornography by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

On this topic: I don’t always agree with Tony’s takes on churchy matters, but this is the kind of common sense I’m glad to see and to be able to unite around:

Angels are freaky.

Do it. Right now.

It was great to meet Fr. Ambrose on my way out of Cincinnati last month. He’s now even cooler.

As the kids say: big mood.

As for me…

Brookline families gather on a Pittsburgh sidewalk.

I’m very excited that my essay for Plough magazine—on my growing neighborhood of Catholic families and the idea that friendship is the essential substrate for community—is now available. It’s called “Small Acts of Grace,” but it might also be called “The Sacramentality of Friendship.” Here’s a sample:

While bringing a meal to a postpartum mother or grasping the shoulder of a struggling father or gently correcting another family’s child are not numbered among the seven sacraments, they are acts of trust and service that communicate grace.

Taken together, these small acts form a matrix that pulses with divine life. They form the foundation for living together in ways that our secular-individualist culture finds frightening in its vulnerability and impractical in its self-giving.

And yet, confronted with the possibility of genuine community, people become fascinated, captivated, entranced. That’s because we humans know that living as isolated individuals or families is not how it’s meant to be. Somewhere deep in our souls the words are carved, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Tip Jar

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This gif comes from a real movie (released just a few weeks ago!) called Sense and Sensibility and Snowmen. Looking forward to next year’s Pride and Prejudice and Peppermint.

Click here to deliver Christmas cheer

Feedback, &c.

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