Christmas Eve: A Day for the Saints

COMMENTARY: Many of the the treasures of the the Roman Martyrology remain mostly hidden. But on Christmas Eve, the martyrology emerges from the darkness for its moment in the light.

Ceiling in the Church of All Saints with fresco paintings in Minsk, Belarus.
Ceiling in the Church of All Saints with fresco paintings in Minsk, Belarus. (photo: TRMK / Shutterstock)

Ready for All Saints Day? It’s Christmas Eve after all.

Let me explain – and introduce the Roman Martyrology.

The Roman Martyrology is an overlooked liturgical book — not nearly as well known as the Roman Missal, the Lectionary or the Liturgy of the Hours

The Roman Martyrology doesn’t even look like a liturgical book; it looks more like a giant directory, which it more or less is. It’s the official listing, by their feast day, of the saints — and a good number of blesseds — officially recognized by the Catholic Church. Despite its great size, the Roman Martyrology is not exhaustive.

I say “recognized” instead of “canonized” as there are many who the Church recognizes as saints, especially biblical figures, who did not undergo the formal process of canonization which developed over centuries. 

It’s those biblical figures that make Christmas Eve an “all saints” day, but more on that later.

The Roman Martyrology is only used as a liturgical book in a few places, usually monastic or other religious communities. The saint (or saints) of the day, with the briefest biographical data, are recited or chanted, either early in the morning or the evening of the previous day.

There are thousands upon thousands of saints recognized by the Church and only a relatively small number have their feast days celebrated publicly at the Holy Mass. Those saints are said to be on the “universal calendar.” Others are celebrated in their localities only. 

For example, St. Faustina’s feast day was only celebrated at Mass in Poland (local calendar) from her canonization in 2000 until 2020, when Pope Francis added her to the universal calendar.

Given that the overwhelming number of saints are not on the universal calendar, the Roman Martyrology is the principal place where their feast days are liturgically recognized.

There is a multitude of riches to be discovered. For example, the feast day of the Good Thief is March 25. Why? Because he died on Good Friday, and saints are often, but not always, assigned their death date as their feast day; dies natalis in Latin, literally their “birthday” in heaven.

Ancient Christian tradition held that the incarnation and redemption took place on the same date, hence Good Friday was held to have taken place on the same date as the Annunciation (March 25). Therefore, the Good Thief appears in the Roman Martyrology on that date.

There are plenty of biblical figures, including many from the Old Testament, who have feast days but are not usually celebrated at Holy Mass. For example, Micah’s feast day in the martyrology is suitably close to Christmas (Dec. 21). It is Micah’s prophecy that provides the answer to the Magi’s question about where the “king of the Jews” had been born: 

And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2).

King David’s feast day (Dec. 29) is also close to Christmas, as Jesus is the “son of David” born in the city of David.

All these treasures of the the Roman Martyrology remain mostly hidden. But on Christmas Eve the martyrology emerges from the darkness for its moment in the light. Many parishes read the “Christmas Proclamation” before the Christmas Masses, the poetic account of the time and place of Christ’s birth (see below). It can be a dramatic moment, especially if read in the darkness before the lights are turned on in the church, the Christmas tree and nativity scene.

The Christmas Proclamation is the first entry in the Roman Martyrology for Dec. 25. (There are nine other saints listed for Christmas Day, including Brother Albert, the Kracovian artist and friar about whom St. John Paul II wrote a play.) 

The first entry for Dec. 24 is also one of the most beautiful in the entire Roman Martyrology

Commemoratio omnium sanctorum avorum Iesu Christi, filii David, filii Abraham, filii Adam, patrum scilicet, qui Deo placuerunt et iusti inventi sunt et iuxta fidem defuncti, nullis acceptis promissionibus, sed longe eas aspicientes et salutantes, ex quibus natus est Christus secundum carnem, qui est super omnia Deus benedictus in saecula. 

Portuguese-speakers might spot what is going on from the Latin avorum, from which their word for grandfather and grandmother (avo) comes. Here’s an English translation:

The commemoration of all the holy ancestors of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the son of Adam, namely those fathers who pleased God and were found just according to the faith of the deceased, who didn’t receive the promises as fulfilled, but gazed on and hailed them from afar, from whom Christ was born according to the flesh, he who is the blessed God above all forever.

It’s the feast day of all the holy ancestors of Jesus, the kind of collective feast day that occurs on Nov. 1. Christmas Eve is the ideal date to celebrate the feast day of all those who prepared the way for the Lord Jesus. 

The poetry of the martyrology makes of a suitable prayer for Christmas Eve morning, contemplating those “who didn’t receive the promises as fulfilled, but gazed on and hailed them from afar.” 

The good news of great joy proclaimed by the angel to the shepherds is that what was promised of old and gazed upon from afar is now close, in the nearby fields of Bethlehem. 

Catholics making their way to midnight Mass, preparing to hear the solemn and stirring Christmas Proclamation, would do well to meditate upon the reality that “many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Luke 10:24).

The Roman Martyrology is a liturgical Christmas present to the Church!

 

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The Christmas Proclamation, as provided in the translation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

The Twenty-fifth Day of December,
when ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world,
when God in the beginning created heaven and earth,
and formed man in his own likeness;
when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood,

as a sign of covenant and peace;
in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith, came out of Ur of the Chaldees;
in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt;
around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;
in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel;
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome;
in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus,

the whole world being at peace,

JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and when nine months had passed since his conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man:
The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Joseph Cordileone attends the mass and imposition of the Pallium upon the new metropolitan archbishops held by Pope Francis for the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul at Vatican Basilica on June 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.

A New Era?

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has a profound understanding of what the U.S. bishops have called the preeminent issue of our time, and his stand is courageous.