You musical folks know the meaning of “octave.” It’s the eighth note above or below a particular note on the scale. Octave means “eighth.” If you count Christmas Day the first, then today is the “eighth day.”
Eight has a great significance in our Jusaeo-Christian tradition. Seven is the number of completion – the work finished, the day of rest after the work of Creation, the Sabbath (Hebrew Shabbat). In Jewish understanding, the Eighth Day is the Day of the Covenant, and therefore carries the connotation of the day that never ends. The Faithful God will never break or annul the Covenant. That’s why circumcision, the sign of the Covenant, takes place on the eighth day.
In later Christian tradition, dating from about the 13th century, the Octave Day of Christmas began to be celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision, when Jesus was also given his name, Yeshua or Yehoshua, meaning “God is salvation.”
In the early Church, following the declaration by the Council of Ephesus (431 CE) of Mary as Theotokos of “Mother of God,” the Maternity of Mary began to be celebrated as a feast. However, it was officially established in the universal Roman calendar following Vatican II in 1970.
In his Apostolic Letter on Devotion to Mary, Marialis Cultus (1974), Pope Paul VI explained: “This celebration, placed on January 1 …is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. It is meant also to exalt the singular dignity which this mystery brings to the holy Mother…through whom we were found worthy to receive the Author of life. It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewing adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels (cf. Lk. 2:14), and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace.”
For nearly fifty years, the Catholic Church has also celebrated this day as the World Day of Peace, and each year the Pope issues a message around a particular theme relating to peace. Taken together, these constitute an impressive body of Catholic teaching. Here’s this year’s by Pope Francis on the necessity to recognize and end slavery in our world today: No Longer Slaves, but Brothers and Sisters.
By our non-liturgical counting, however, beginning with Christmas a “day zero” and the day after as “day one,” – recall that this was in order to make the Epiphany to come out as the twelfth – today the Seventh Day of Christmas is the last of the birds: Seven Swans A-Swimming. Although there are old recipes for cooking swan meat, this elegant member of the goose and duck family is more associated with beauty and transformation (e.g., The Ugly Duckling) than food.
Happy New Year!
Here in its entirety is today’s Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, celebrated by Pope Francis.