The Breviary begins today with this invitatory: “Come let us worship the newborn Christ, who has given the glorious crown to St. Stephen.” In the book of Acts, where we read about Stephen’s martyrdom, nothing suggests a connection to the newborn Christ in particular, but the fact that his feast day has been right after Christmas since the liturgical year first took shape led to the tradition that the three days after Christmas bring three “companions of Christ” around the crib to adore the infant God.
The three companions, according to a medieval commentary, represent the three kinds of martyrs. First we have Stephen, who was willing to die for Christ and was in fact killed; tomorrow we have St. John, who was willing to die for Christ but was not in fact killed; and then we have the Holy Innocents, who were in fact killed for Christ but were too young to be willing. Today’s invitatory connects the newborn Christ to the first kind of martyr. Tomorrow’s invitatory turns to the default invitatory used for every Apostle, but the invitatory for the Holy Innocents sounds like today’s: “Come, let us worship the newborn Christ, who crowns with joy these children who died for him.”
Continue reading “On the Feast of Stephen”
If you pray the breviary regularly, you get a glimpse into liturgical history. Even today, if almost all the readings and prayers for a saints’ day are particular to the day rather than drawn from the “commons” in the back then it’s a safe bet this saint was a big deal in the Middle Ages.
Pretty much everything in the breviary is special for St. Martin. He was much loved across Christian Europe, and in the decades leading up to the year 600 dioceses all over the west adopted the practice of fasting from St. Martin’s day until Christmas on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, in imitation of the forty days before Easter. It was known as “St. Martin’s Lent,” and was later abbreviated to four weeks to become what we know as the Advent Season.
In keeping with the day before a fast, Martinmas was a day of feasting. Farmers slaughtered their meat animals and, incidentally, paid their taxes and tithes; children wandered from door to door begging for alms like trick-or-treaters today; bon fires blazed, goose was consumed, and a good time was had by all.
Even though Martinmas is no longer the liturgical beginning of Advent, it still works for me like a signpost: “Start thinking about Advent and Christmas!” Time to make those Christmas lists, think about Advent resolutions, and make sure you fixed that Advent decoration that broke last year. Here in the Holmes house, it is a doubly special day because our fourth child, Regina, was born on this day ten years ago. Wednesdays are too full for partying, but come Saturday we’ll have a delayed Martinmas celebration with a bon fire, hot dogs, music, entertainment, birthday cake and ice cream, and presents for the queen of the feast.
So read about St. Martin and find out why the people of the Middle Ages loved him so much. If nothing else, walk around today with a festive spring in your step! And remember that he was considered the patron saint of taverns. I have written about my own devotional approach to the day here.
November seems like the perfect place for All Souls’ Day. Although a time a harvest, it is also a time of dwindling life and light, a time that signifies the approach of death. Coming immediately after All Saints’ Day, when the Church Militant venerates the Church Triumphant and those in glory pray for us, All Souls’ Day has us attend to the remaining part of the Mystical Body.
The placement of All Souls’ Day right after All Saints’ Day also makes sense from a historical perspective. According to Dom Gregory Dix, our liturgical veneration of the saints is ultimately rooted in an early belief in purgatory. He traces the history this way:
- The earliest Christians believed that the deceased faced the possibility of purgative fires. So when a Christian died, it was customary to offer prayers for that person on the anniversary of his or her death.
- When a Christian was martyred, the community felt strange about praying for his soul, because it was confident the deceased had bypassed purgatory entirely. On the other hand, it was customary to do something on the anniversary of a Christian’s death. So instead of praying for the martyr’s soul, they would offer prayers in celebration of what the martyr had done. (This is captured in the Martyrdom of Polycarp.)
- In a kind of Christianized civic spirit, Christian communities celebrated their local martyrs in a regular cycle.
- In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem began celebrating all the great biblical saints, because for someone living in Jerusalem all the biblical saints were local.
- When the many pilgrims to Jerusalem brought this practice back to their various homes, suddenly a lot of communities were celebrating saints that were not local to them. Thus was born the universal calendar of saints.
So in a kind of order of discovery, All Souls’ Day is prior to All Saints’ Day: we discovered Masses in honor of the triumphant by realizing we weren’t comfortable counting them as suffering. But in another order, All Saints’ Day is first: we look to the goal first and then pray that our suffering brothers and sisters will reach it; all of us who can pray, which includes us on earth and our forerunners in heaven, first unite together and then, together, pray for the suffering deceased.
The feast of Saint Bartholomew, Apostle, whom many believe to be the same as Nathaniel. Born in Galilee, he was led to Jesus Christ by Philip near the Jordan; later, the Lord called Bartholomew to follow him and included him in the Twelve; after the Lord’s ascension, he is believed to have preached the Gospel in India, where he was crowned with martyrdom.
May Holy Mary and all the saints intercede to the Lord for us, that we may merit to be helped and saved by him who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
V. Precious in the sight of the Lord
R. Is the death of his holy ones.
V. May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life. And may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.
[To learn about praying this and other Martyrology entries, see this page.]
So you love besting your friends with obscure Catholic trivia. You find a nugget of geekery and you treasure it up, waiting like a spider in its web to rush out and pounce on some Catholic friend or acquaintance with your stumper question. Well, I have a little gem for you.
Question: What saints’ feast days fall on different days depending on what year it is?
Think about this one before you read the answer. The solution has nothing to do with a difference between the old and new calendars (although we’ll say something about that difference in a moment). It has nothing to do with when Easter falls, or how many Sundays there are in Advent. Got it yet?
In the 2004 edition of the Roman Martyrology, 9 saints are celebrated on February 28. But in a leap year, saints 4 through 7 are moved to February 29. Those are Pope St. Hilary, St. Oswald, Blessed Antonia of Florence, and St. Augustus Chapdelaine.
The pre-Vatican II martyrology has a somewhat messier solution for leap years. The vigil of St. Matthias the Apostle is celebrated on February 23 together with a number of other saints, with his feast falling on February 24, again together with a bunch of other saints. But in a leap year, February 24 is emptied entirely and the only martyrology entry for the day is “the Vigil of St. Matthias the Apostle”. What would normally be celebrated on the 24th is bumped to the 25th, the 25th is bumped to the 26th, and so on until the 29th has what used to be the saints of the 28th.
Both solutions are odd, but they escape something even odder. If February 29th had its own saints, then we would only celebrate those saints liturgically once every four years!