Question: I regularly attend daily Mass, and I must admit I get a bit confused at Christmas time. The very day after Christmas we are celebrating the feast of St. Stephen the Martyr and later in the week we celebrate the feast of St. John the Apostle. Why do we jump around so much at Christmas? It feels like we lose the focus on Jesus’ birth.
— James, St. Louis, Mo.
Answer: Yes, and to add to your reflection, we also seem to move forward and backward in time during the Christmas cycle. The feast of the Holy Family, celebrated on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day, features a Gospel of Jesus at 12 years of age. And then at Epiphany, celebrated more than a week later, Jesus is back to being an infant.
Further, we observe the feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28, a terrible slaughter that took place after the visit of the Magi, and then we move backward in time to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany on the Sunday near Jan. 1.
Some of these anomalies are explained by the fact that the liturgical year did not develop evenly over the centuries.
The feasts of St. Stephen Martyr and St. John the Apostle are very ancient feasts on the Church’s calendar. The celebration of Christmas developed in later centuries.
It surprises us moderns that the ancient Church did not focus a great deal on the birth of Christ. The early Church focused on the Paschal mystery of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
In later centuries, the Christmas feast became more elevated, but the focus was still more theological. Thus, it did not seem so alarming that the very day after Christmas, we were back to celebrating other saints.
Later, as a celebration of Christ’s incarnation deepened, theologically and culturally, there was developed the octave of Christmas.
But the Church did not feel free simply to move aside the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John, which were very ancient.
As for the chronological whiplash of moving back and forth in time within the Christmas feasts, we should recall that in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy we access eternity, rather than merely chronological time.
For God, all times and events are equally present, and we meet him there, rather than simply on our schedule.
Loaves and fish
Question: The priest told us recently at Mass that Jesus did not actually multiply the loaves and fishes, he just got people to share, that this is the real miracle. Is this so?
— Name withheld, Tennessee
Answer: No, it is not so. Jesus actually multiplied the loaves and fishes. The “spin” given in the sermon is a rather tired and dated notion that developed in the 1970s. It has a seemingly clever insight with a moral imperative, that if we learn to share, there will always be enough.
But denying that a true and plainly described miracle took place is not respectful of the text. Jesus says plainly, they have no food (Mt 15:32). The Apostles observe the same and offer as evidence a mere five loaves and two fish. The texts are clear that it is from these five loaves and two fishes that Jesus feeds the multitude miraculously. There is no indication whatsoever that people started taking out other food and learned to share.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.