Many are shocked to walk into daily Mass on December 26 and instead of hearing more of the “Baby Jesus” we are confronted with Martyrdom, “The Feast of Stephen” is ancient on the Church’s calendar. More ancient than the Christmas cycle and hence it was not removed to another time.
But the martyrdom does not stop there. We are in the midst of the Christmas Octave, an Octave filled with blood as we shall see.
What is an Octave? But first, there may be some of you who wonder what is meant by and “Octave.” An Octave is a period of eight days wherein a feast of the Church is celebrated for that whole period as though it were all the same day. In the modern liturgical calendar we only observe two octaves explicitly: Christmas and Easter.
During the week following Christmas many of the prayers speak of each day as though it were still Christmas. For example some of the prayers and antiphons say, “Today is born our savior, Christ the Lord.” A purist might say, but it is NOT today that he is born, it was back on Saturday the 25th that he was born. But, in certain sense this IS still Christmas day. Christmas Day is one long day of eight days from Saturday the 25th to Saturday January 1st.
It is the same with Easter where for one whole week we announce: “This is the day the Lord has made…”
Why eight days? Some say it is a reference to the eighth day on which Christ rose. I know, you thought it was the third day. But it was also the eighth day! For God made the world in seven days, resting on the seventh (Sabbath or Saturday). But Christ rose on the 8th day (Sunday). So resurrection morning is both the third day AND the eighth day! Others say the practice of the octave goes to Jewish times where some of the feasts (e.g. Dedication and Tabernacles (Booths)) were celebrated over 8 days.
In the old calendar there were more Octaves such as: Epiphany, Pentecost, All Saints, Immaculate Conception, Ascension Sacred Heart and others). Not all of these were privileged Octaves in which no other feasts could be celebrated. Easter and Pentecost were really the only two that blocked out all other feasts entirely. Others, like the Christmas Octave, allowed the celebration of other feasts but still referred to the feast of the octave as well.
So here we are in the Christmas Octave and, in a strong sense it is thus still Christmas Day. TODAY is born our savior Christ the Lord. This feast is so important that we stretch its observance a completed week and into the eighth day.
Bloody Octave – But one of the striking things about the Christmas octave is its bloodiness. It is one of the bloodiest weeks of the Church’s years. Thus, on December 26th, when we have hardly digested our Christmas dinner, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, the Martyr who was stoned to death. On December 28th we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the young and infant boys who were murdered by Herod seeking to kill Christ. On December 29th we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Becket who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Even St. (King) Wenceslaus of whom we happily sing “on the Feast of Stephen” was brutally killed by his brother.
Read more at Archdiocese of Washington