For the secular world, the Christmas season begins on All Saint’s Day and ends at 11:59 pm on Christmas Day. Of course, like most things, the secular culture has things totally backwards. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, recognizes that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” do not begin in the middle of December and then culminate on Christmas; instead these days begin on the day we commemorate our Lord’s birth. What’s even better is that the Christmas season is still going strong after these 12 days. The season doesn’t end until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Monday, January 8 this year) and one could argue the Christmas cycle doesn’t end until February 2 with the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, commonly called “Candlemas”. I know I’ll be keeping my Christmas tree up until then!
But sometimes, even we Christians forget about all the wonderful celebrations that take place during the Christmas season, such as the Feast of the Holy Innocents and the Epiphany of the Lord. But today, let’s focus on just one of those celebrations. Let’s concentrate on a feast that couldn’t properly be celebrated on Christmas due to our main focus on the incarnation of our Lord Jesus in his nativity. On the Octave Day of Christmas, we celebrate Our Lady’s divine maternity with a feast simply known today as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Why is it so important that we celebrate this feast? Or better yet, why is this feast a holy day of obligation?
First, we have to realize that this is a very ancient feast. While over the years the Octave Day of Christmas has focused on different elements, such as the Circumcision of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary has always been commemorated on this day. Take a look at the Collect for this feast. It’s the same Collect that is used in the 1962 Missal as well:
O God, by the fruitful virginity of Blessed Mary, You bestowed upon the human race the rewards of eternal salvation; grant, we beseech You, that we may feel the power of her intercession, through whom we have been made worthy to receive the Author of Life, Jesus Christ Your Son our Lord. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
This feast helps us remember in a special way that without Mary’s “Yes!” there never would’ve been a Christmas in the first place. Because she has done the will of the Father so perfectly, we can be assured, as the Collect mentions, that her intercession for us will be most powerful. Just think of all the titles our Lady has. She didn’t get them for nothing. She is honored with a myriad of titles because her prayers for us are more efficacious than we can even imagine.
The divine maternity of our Lady isn’t recognized only in the Latin Rite, but also in the Byzantine Rite. This feast is celebrated on December 26 in the Byzantine Rite, and the Byzantine Catholic Church in particular has many beautiful hymns that are sung on this day, such as this one:
“A star announces the good news to the wise men. The angels join with the shepherds to sing the glory of your marvelous child-bearing, O Woman Full of Grace.”
Some might point out that we already celebrated Mary’s maternity and her “Yes” during the feast of the Annunciation. We have to keep in mind that the yearly cycle of the Church encourages us to call to mind these things on more than just one occasion. Even on the feast of the Annunciation, we are also celebrating the Incarnation. If Jesus was fully human, then he entered the world on that day as a human at the earliest stage of development, a zygote. We celebrate God taking our flesh on that day in addition to Mary’s fiat. And since his birth would rightfully overshadow Mary’s maternity on the feast of his nativity, it’s proper that we set aside a day for Mary on January 1 where we can honor her justly and ask for that powerful intercession of hers.
Blessed Pope Paul VI made it quite clear that this day is to be commemorated by all the faithful, and by his language used in the Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus, it’s easy to see why this feast is typically a holy day of obligation:
“In the revised ordering of the Christmas period it seems to us that the attention of all should be directed towards the restored Solemnity of Mary the holy Mother of God. This celebration, placed on January 1 in conformity with the ancient indication of the liturgy of the City of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. It is meant also to exalt the singular dignity which this mystery brings to the ‘holy Mother…through whom we were found worthy to receive the Author of life.’ It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewing adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels (cf. Lk. 2:14), and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace.”
So instead of packing away the Christmas decorations and entering a depression on December 26, let’s keep celebrating as the season has only just begun. The Solemnity of Mary is just one of many feasts that we celebrate during this season, because there’s just no way that all of these events can be commemorated on December 25. Thankfully, the Church provides us with a calendar that gives each aspect of the Christmas season its due. Even though the Solemnity of Mary is not a holy day of obligation in the United States this year, let’s all make an effort to be at Mass on January 1 so that we may worship our Lord, and ask our Lady for her protection through her intercession.