The Church loves celebrations and so doesn't let go of its major feasts quickly. As we celebrate Easter until Pentecost, we celebrate Christmas until Epiphany, thus 12 days.
The Church's feasts during this period are connected to God's coming into the world. The first four represent three kinds of martyrdom: those who died willing as Stephen and Thomas Becket, those willingly to die but who were not put to death like John and those who were put to death without their choice like the Holy Innocents.
The rest of the feasts bring vivid examples of what it means to followers of Jesus.
Dec. 26 is St. Stephen's feast. His choice by the Apostles as one of the seven (deacons) to minister to those in need led to the Christian practice of handing out St. Stephen's almsboxes of food and clothing collected during Advent which has become today's Boxing Day.
Acts 6-7 tell the story of Stephen's eloquence and courage as the first adult Christian who died willingly for Christ. We would do well to revive the practice by choosing this day to give of the abundance we have received.
Dec. 27 honours St. John who is considered to be the disciple "whom Jesus loved." The Gospel for this day shows John believing after seeing the empty tomb, thus linking Jesus' birth to his resurrection.
Right from its first words, John's Gospel reveals the divinity of Jesus and his incarnation: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God. . . . The Word was made flesh and lived among us" (1:1, 14). Today, we, too, can lean on Jesus as did John.
Dec. 28 is the feast of the Holy Innocents who, according to Matthew's Gospel (2:13-18) were put to death while Herod tried to make sure he killed Jesus. Thus, they were the first martyrs for Jesus so soon after his birth. Let us make some special effort to protect all the innocents from the Herods of today.
St. Thomas Becket
Dec. 29 is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, chancellor of King Henry II and archbishop of Canterbury. He followed his conscience instead of the king's orders which resulted in his assassination in 1170. Miracles followed making Canterbury a centre of pilgrimage. Are we, as Christians, willing to make the supreme sacrifice to stand up for what is right?
Dec. 30, the feast of the Holy Family celebrates the people whose faithfulness to their call enabled Christ to come into our world.
Continue to pray for and help families when war seems to be increasingly waged against the family.
Dec. 31, the feast of St. Sylvester I, the first pope after Christianity was given a new birth in 314. He said that, for Christians, all days are holy. This day we sweep out the old from our lives to allow for the new miracles of God's grace in each day.
Jan. 1 commemorated, until 1969, the Circumcision of Jesus which initiated the newborn child into the Abrahamic covenant. Now, it combines the feast of Mary, the Mother of God with the octave of Christmas, celebrating anew the birth of Jesus.
New Year's Day, although not specifically a Christian feast, is a new beginning when we look at the future with a renewed vision created by the hope that Christ brought to the world.
Jan. 2, we celebrate two great fourth century Cappadocians (present-day Turkey), Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus.
Both were eloquent speakers and writers who helped stem the growing controversies over Jesus' identity as both God and man. What can we do to stem the new controversy over the celebration of Christmas in our society?
Holy Name of Jesus
Jan. 3 is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, the name given to him by the angel who appeared to Joseph to tell him about Jesus' coming (Matthew 1:21). This is the name by which we are saved and to which every knee shall bow.
Previously honoured on this day was St. Genevieve whose intercession saved Paris from invaders in 451.
Do we honour the name of Jesus at all times?
Jan. 4 has no special feast day. But in the day's Gospel, Jesus calls disciples, "Come and see." An older calendar has the feast of 13th century Angela de Foligno, who had many visions of Christ. This is our call as Christians, to see Christ every day in those around us.
Jan. 5 is the vigil of the Epiphany. The Church in its hurry to celebrate began by celebrating great feasts the evening before. In today's Gospel, we read of another call to disciples, "Come, follow me."
In an older calendar, Telesphorus, an early second century bishop of Rome and the fifth century Simeon Stylites who lived on a pillar as a form of austerity were both listed for this day.
Jesus calls to all forms of service and love.
Are we listening?
Jan. 6 is Epiphany, which means a showing or revelation. We celebrate the coming of wisemen from the East to offer Jesus their homage, as recorded in Matthew. This feast, now celebrated on a Sunday rounds out the Christmas season by showing the universal character of Jesus' birth.
A Danish proverb tells us that Christmas remains in the home as long as there is hospitality to all. Let's keep Christmas with us as long as we can.
A year of grace
These feasts are a "showing" or epiphany of the Gospel throughout the centuries. Reflecting on their significance can unburden and enrich our Christmas. And even more, it can be the beginning of a new year of grace.