What Does the Prayer Really Say? Holy Family – Sunday in the Octave of Christmas
“Octave” refers to a period of eight days following a feast day, including the feast itself, as well as the eighth day after a feast. Once there were many octaves in the Church’s calendar. Since the implementation of the so-called Novus Ordo, we now have only two: Christmas and Easter. In a sense, time is suspended during an octave. God created the world in six days and on the seventh He rested. The eighth day, a day beyond the cycle of seven, is a glimpse of the eternal state, the perfect sabbath of heaven. Also, since the Church is the greatest expert on humanity that there has ever been, the Church is wise to give us octaves. From the point of view of human psychology, we cannot possibly cope with the impact of the all the different angles and dimensions of the mysteries of these great feasts. An octave allows us to celebrate and consider a feast from many different sides. For a small example, Pius Parsh writes in The Church’s Year of Grace that the placement of the feasts of Sts. Stephen, John the Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents permits us to approach the new born King as martyrs, then as virgins, then as virgin-martyrs. On Christmas the Lamb appears in His first coming. In the book of Revelation, at His second coming, He is surrounded by multitudes. Advent prepared us for the “coming of the Lamb”, both at Bethlehem and the end of time and Christmas marks them both. On the days that follow Christmas the Church gathers around the manger of Bethlehem and around the Lamb as in Revelation and we “sing a new song to the Lord!” We become, through the Church’s calendar, like the eschatological multitude of 144,000 who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” Tomorrow, 1 January, we celebrate the solemn feast of Mary, Mother of God, once called in the traditional Roman calendar (and still so by those using the beautiful 1962 Missal) the Feast of the Circumcision, when Christ shed His Blood for us for the first time. Thus, at Christmas the wooden Crib already points to the wooden Cross, and beyond to the goal of heaven made possible now for the children of a common Father. Mary stood at the foot of both. Consequently, it is fitting to celebrate her with great solemnity in the Christmas octave. By her participation in the salvific shedding of her Son’s Blood Mary gives us an important example of sacrificial love.
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Deus, qui praeclara nobis sanctae Familiae
dignatus es exempla praebere,
ut domesticis virtutibus caritatisque vinculis illam sectantes,
in laetitia domus tuae praemiis fruamur aeternis.
O God, who deigned to furnish us with the very beautiful models of the Holy Family,
propitiously grant that we,
who are eagerly imitating them with domestic virtues and the bonds of charity,
may enjoy eternal rewards in the joy of your house.
Exemplum, according to the fine Lewis & Short Dictionary, can mean, “A sample for imitation, instruction, proof, a pattern, model, original, example….” Also, sector can mean, “to follow continuously or eagerly… to strive after.” So, I conflated the two words, rather than write, “the very beautiful models for imitation… grant propitiously that we, who are eagerly following…”. Also, even though the Latin has illam (singular), based on the plural exempla, I say we are imitating “them” rather than “it”. Exemplum is also laden with significance in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. For the Fathers, exemplum many things including man as God’s image, Christ as a Teacher, and the content of prophecy. In Greek and Roman rhetoric and philosophy, which so deeply influenced the Fathers, it referred to auctoritas, the “authority” which means among other things the moral persuasive force of an argument. When we hear this prayer with Patristic ears, exemplum is not merely an “example” to be followed: it indicates a past event as a reason for hope and an incitement to the spiritual life that leads to the resurrection Christ experienced in anticipation of our own rising to new life.
The term domestica virtus, hearkens to the Second Vatican Council’s description of the family as the “domestic Church”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1656 cites Lumen gentium 11:
In our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to faith, believing families are of primary importance as centers of living radiant faith. For this reason the Second Vatican Council, using an ancient expression, calls the family the Ecclesia domestica. It is in the bosom of the family that parents are “by word and example…the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children. They should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each child, fostering with special care any religious vocation.”
In this prayer we are stating (as much as the expression of something we desire to do as it is a statement of fact) that we are imitating the virtues practiced by Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the union of their earthly household and we are doing this with bonds of love similar to theirs. The reward for doing this faithfully is the opportunity to participate in the heavenly household of God the Father in the new family of the Church triumphant.
Vinculum literally means something by which a thing is bound. It is the word for the link of a chain, the chain itself, a bond or a fetter. Here it describes effect of real charity, the kind of sacrificial love based on obedience to God’s will that the Holy Family had for one another and Christ showed forth perfectly on the Cross. The bonds of charity require many sacrifices and the abandoning, or rather transformation of selfish desires. The bonds of the family, and any authentic relationship based on something other than mutual use of each other, appear to restrict personal freedom. So, this image of love as a bond points to the fact that God’s love and God-like love, charity, makes us freer than we could ever hope to be without it.
The bonds of love and virtues of the Holy Family are our glimpse at the harmony of heaven which we as a pilgrim Church are eagerly striving after. The family, then, nourished in the faith and sacraments of the Church is an image of the Holy Family, itself a more perfect image of the communion of persons of the Church in heaven and of the Persons of the Trinity. This prayer helps us to understand more fully the role of the family in our lives as “the domestic Church.” The family is the first Church children know and observe, their parents are the first examples of God they meet. Is it a wonder that the forces of hell are terribly arrayed against the family and the virtues which must be practiced in home? The media, especially cinema, TV, and the internet (the Catholic Online Forum excepted, naturally), pour into our homes a constant stream of attacks on the virtues that make a family possible. Thus, this prayer is a statement of contradiction to the way of the world as well as an affirmation of the desire for heaven and heavenly things.
Father, help us to live as the holy family,
united in respect and love.
Bring us to the joy and peace of your eternal home.
It seems to me that, by rendering domesticis virtutibus caritatisque vinculis as “respect and love” we are losing the core of this prayer.
We are coming to the end of the year 2000 and the closing of the Holy Doors of the major Roman basilicas with the end of the great Jubilee on the rich feast of Epiphany. Hopefully what we have gained in the three year preparation and then the Jubilee itself will resound through the year 2001 and all the years to come. Let us not forget to give thanks to God with special prayers and works of mercy as this year comes to an end and sing with the Church, as she traditionally does at the close of the year: Te Deum laudamus… We praise Thee, O God… Accept my prayerful best wishes for a happy new year of salvation 2001.