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 Scott P. Richert, your Guide to Catholicism

Today, Catholics around the world, just like most non-Catholics and non-Christians, will count down the final hours of 2011 and welcome the New Year. But a few hours later, while others are sleeping in, we’ll be at Mass celebrating the first major feast of 2012: the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. What better way to ring in the New Year than to celebrate the woman whose complete devotion to God played such a central role in our salvation?

Best wishes, on behalf of my family and myself, for a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!

By now, you’re probably wondering just what the heck I’m talking about. Well, as regular readers of the About.com Catholicism GuideSite know, the Catholic Church still considers Fridays a day of penance (no, that wasn’t “abolished at Vatican II”), and the Code of Canon Law (Canons 1250-51) prescribes abstinence from meat on every Friday of the year, unless the bishops’ conference for your country has substituted a different penance. (See What Are the Rules for Fasting and Abstinence in the Catholic Church?)

But Canon 1251 notes one exception (emphasis added):

Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.

Solemnities are the highest feasts of the Church, the days that, under normal circumstances, are considered Holy Days of Obligation (though not every country observes all of them). So, in recent years, when both the Solemnity of Saint Joseph and the Solemnity of the Annunciation fell on Fridays, there was no obligation to abstain from meat (or practice an alternative penance) on those days. And Christmas, of course, is a solemnity as well.

But what does any of this have to do with the Second through Eighth Days of Christmas? Here’s where things get really interesting.

Historically, the Catholic Church has observed octaves of important feasts. Before the reform of the liturgical calendar in 1969, a considerable number of feasts (very roughly, those that we now consider solemnities) had octaves attached to them. An octave (an English abbreviation of the Latin octava dies, or “eighth day”) comprises the seven days following a feast, and the feast itself.

The Church treats every day during the octave of a feast as if it were the feast itself. So, for instance, the prayers for Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours (the Church’s daily prayer) during the Octave of Christmas refer to each day as if it were still Christmas Day. And, liturgically speaking, it still is. Liturgy, by its very nature, takes us outside the bounds of time. At any of the Church’s liturgies, we are standing before the throne of God in Heaven, where time does not exist.

So an octave is a way to extend a feast day for a full eight days. Twenty-four hours, the Church is saying, just simply isn’t enough time to rejoice in Christ’s birth; we need more.

So what does this mean concerning our Friday penance? Well, if Christmas falls on a Friday, not only are we not required to observe abstinence (or some other form of penance), we shouldn’t abstain. There is a time to fast, and a time to feast, and feasts such as Christmas are not times to fast.

And, since every day in the Octave of Christmas is liturgically Christmas Day, the Friday in the Octave of Christmas is not a time to fast, either. Canon 1251’s exemption for solemnities includes every day within the Octave of Christmas. (The same, of course, applies to the Octave of Easter, the only octave besides the Octave of Christmas to survive the revision of the liturgical calendar in 1969.)

So, if you’re still chipping away at the remains of your Christmas goose or roast, or if you’d just like a nice juicy steak or hamburger today, go ahead—it’s still Christmas!

More on Fasting, Abstinence, and Solemnities:

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