The Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated today in the Catholic Church throughout the world. This feast day was officially established by Pope Leo XIII in 1893, to honor the family of Jesus of Nazareth, his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her husband Joseph. The Holy Family of Nazareth is venerated as a model and an inspiration for all Catholic families.
As the Catholic married couple reflect on Mary and Joseph living as husband and wife, they are inspired to be more caring, respectful and affectionate in their love for one another.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) referred to the Catholic family as “the domestic Church”: “From Christian marriage there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born. By the grace of the Holy Spirit received in Baptism, these are made children of God, thus perpetuating the People of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic Church. Parents, by their words and example, should be the first teachers of the Faith to their children”. (The Church n.11)
This is followed up by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches: “The Christian family is the first place where children first learn the practice of the Faith. For this reason the family home is rightly called ‘the domestic Church’, a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and Christian charity”. (CCC 1666)
In speaking of Christian prayer the Catechism teaches: “The Christian family is the first place of education in prayer. Based on the sacrament of Marriage, the family is the ‘domestic Church’, where God’s children learn to pray ‘as the Church’, and to persevere in prayer. For young children in particular, daily family prayer is the first witness of the Church’s living memory, awakened patiently by the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 2685)
The feast of the Holy Family was instituted to inspire Catholic parents, and to give them and their children the example of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to admire and imitate.
The feast of the Holy Family is usually celebrated on the Sunday between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. If there is no Sunday between Christmas and New Year, as happens this year, the Holy Family is celebrated on December 30th.
On television yesterday I watched the second part of the film “Into Great Silence”. This is a fascinating film, produced by Philip Gronig, chronicling the life of the monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, in the Chartreuse mountains near Grenoble in the French Alps.
Mr. Gronig proposed the idea of the film to the monks in 1984. They told him they would think about it. Sixteen years later they told them he could do the filming if he was still interested.
In March 2002 Gronig went to the monastery and began filming. He lived at the monastery for several months, filming and doing his own recording. He then spent more than two years editing the film, which was finally released in 2005.
When I chanced upon the film yesterday, I did not intend to continue watching it, but I found it riveting, and had to see it to the end.
There were long stretches of the film without a word spoken, or much movement. But the camera seemed to capture the intense concentration of the monks simply by focusing on a pair of hands reaching out in humble trust, or a monk prostrate before an altar in an attitude of total surrender.
The outside views of the jagged rocks or snow-filled crevices spoke of the rugged life of the monks, and of days dedicated to prayer and sacrifice without any concession to the comforts which modern life might offer.
But the testimony of one of the monks, an elderly man who had lost his sight, gave no hint of regret, but rather of a quiet happiness that he was experiencing some of the joy of heaven even here in the trials of life on earth.
I look forward to seeing the entire film, which challenged me to look again at the world in which I live, and try to see it from the eternal perspective of the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse.
If you are interested in learning more about the Carthusians, you will find well-written articles on Saint Bruno and the Carthusians in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Another good source is a book titled, “An Infinity of Little Hours”, by Nancy Klein Maguire. She follows the history of five young men who entered the Carthusians in 1960, and she offers first-hand testimony of their thirsting quest for God.
On December 28th the Catholic Church commemorates the massacre of the children put to death by King Herod when Christ was born in Bethlehem. Herod had interviewed the Wise Men who followed the star in their search for the new-born king.
He sent them to Bethlehem, and told them to come back and give him the exact location of the child. But after they had visited the baby, an angel in a dream told them not to go back to Herod.
Herod was angry, because he wanted to do away with the baby as a possible rival to his throne. So he sent his soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years of age and under. He was prepared to kill them all in order to get rid of the new-born king. This is all recorded in the Gospel (Matthew 2, 1-12).
By the year 1000 A.D. the English began to refer to Holy Innocents’ Day as “Childermas”, which is a combination of the two words, “Children” and “Mass”. It was the day on which Mass was celebrated in honor of the children who were considered as little martyrs because they died for Christ.
Many new customs emerged in different parts of the world in association with the celebration of Holy Innocents’ Day. These customs assigned a special role to children, often reversing the role of power and authority between children and grown-ups.
In Belgium, early on the morning of Holy Innocents, the children would take control of all the keys in the house. Later, when a grown-up went into a room or closet, the child would lock the door, and not allow the person to come out until they had promised to pay a “ransom” of money, or candy or a toy. Tradition in other countries allowed children to play tricks on their parents, and to assume the parents’ authority by sitting on their chairs.
In the Spanish-speaking world, and in other Latin countries, people celebrate Holy Innocents’ Day by playing practical jokes on one another. The person who gets fooled in the joke is referred to as an “innocent”.
But Holy Innocents’ Day never lost its serious side. In Ireland it became known as “the Cross day of the year”, because of the terrible deed being remembered. In old European folk beliefs it was considered an unlucky day on which to begin anything new.
“Twelfth Night” is a play of William Shakespeare supposedly written to provide entertainment for the last night of the Christmas season. Its first recorded performance was in 1602.
During the reign of the Tudors in England, the twelve days of Christmas were days of continuous celebration and merry-making. The twelfth night was the climax of these celebrations, where confusion was not only permitted but encouraged as a form of entertainment.
Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was particularly suited to this, as it is a comedy where confusion reigns. The confusion arises from mistaken identity and a reversal of gender roles. The leading character, Viola, is shipwrecked and loses contact with her twin brother Sebastian, whom she wrongly believes was drowned. She disguises herself as her brother, and gets a job as a page in the service of the local Duke. This gives rise to a series of hilarious situations which ends happily only when Sebastian finally appears, and Viola returns to her proper role as his twin sister.
The twelve days of Christmas are also remembered in a medieval English Christmas carol which recalls the different gift “my true love sent to me” on each of the twelve days. The song is so arranged that each verse begins with the new gift, but then adds the gifts of the previous days. The final verse lists the gifts sent on “the twelfth day of Christmas” as, “12 drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping, 10 lords a-leaping, 9 ladies dancing, 8 maids a-milking, 7 swans a-swimming, 6 geese a-laying, 5 gold rings, 4 colly birds, 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”.
The Twelve Days of Christmas end on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany celebrates the Three Wise Men who followed the star, and came to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Child born to Mary in Bethlehem.
Boxing Day is the name given in England to the day after Christmas. Strictly speaking, Boxing Day is the first weekday after Christmas day.
The Woodlands Middle School website explains how Boxing Day got its name. One explanation of Boxing Day was the custom of the lord and lady of the manor “boxing” the surplus food and gifts left over from Christmas Day, to distribute them among the tenants who lived and worked on their land. This was usually done on the day after Christmas, which then got the name of Boxing Day.
Another instance was the Church encouraging people to donate gifts for the poor in the run-up to Christmas. The gifts were stored in a big alms box which was kept under lock and key. Then on the day after Christmas the box was opened and the gifts were distributed to the poor.
Another version had to do with the great sailing ships. Before the ship set sail on a long voyage, a box or container was placed on board, usually by a priest, for the sailors to donate gifts of money to ensure a safe return. The box was then sealed, and kept on board during the voyage.
If the ship returned safely, the box was handed over to the priest, who would offer a Mass of thanksgiving for the safe voyage. The priest would keep the box sealed until the day after Christmas, when it would be opened and the contents shared among the poor.
The day after Christmas Day is also known as Saint Stephen’s Day, in memory of the first martyr put to death for his faith in Jesus Christ. The story of Stephen’s trial and death is found in chapters 6 and 7 of the Acts of the Apostles.
The Church chose the day immediately after Christmas to commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Perhaps that is to remind us that the baby born in Bethlehem on Christmas Day will also give his life one day to show mankind that God loves them.