Great question! The church has perennially celebrated octaves of significant feast days, with a whole week of Masses/festivities celebrating them. Christmas certainly has an octave, and in this case, the Scriptures give us the perfect reading for that eighth-day culmination:
“And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21)
Think of this scene: Mary gets to give Jesus his name, which literally means “YHWY saves.” She holds him as he first sheds his blood for our redemption. She comforts her little baby as he fulfils the command, and covenant, given to Abram so many centuries before. By 300 A.D., Jan. 1, for these reasons, became a day devoted to Our Lady, under that tremendous title Mother of God.
By 700 A.D., the celebrations of Mary’s Annunciation and Assumption began to take on more prominence in the yearly calendar. There was not so stringent of a debate around calling Mary the “Mother of God,” and so the church liturgically emphasizes other important truths. The reading stayed the same, from Luke 2, but the name of the octave day now was called the Octave of the Nativity of Our Lord (In Octabas Domini). By 1300 A.D., this day was called the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord and the Octave of the Nativity and when a separate feast was established for the Holy Name of Jesus in 1721, the focus on Jan. 1 became more and more on Christ’s circumcision.
Notice that though the title has changed as the church has decided what aspect of this scene to emphasize, this octave day of Christmas has always included Mary’s role. In more recent times, though we do not usually struggle to recognize Christ’s humanity (which is emphasized in a feast devoted to Our Lord’s circumcision) we have begun again to forget about that amazing fact that he is God and man — that he is Divine person who has taken on a human nature — and that Mary, miraculously, amazingly, is the mother of that person, and thus the Mother of God. Thus, in 1960, before the Second Vatican Council (so this is still with the Tridentine form of the Mass, the Extraordinary Form), St. Pope John XXIII renamed the feast back to the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord.
After Vatican II, with much of this Mass staying the same (the Entrance Antiphon is still from Isaiah 9, the Collect is identical: “O God, who through the fruitful virginity of Blessed Mary bestowed on the human race the grace of eternal salvation … ,” and the Gospel is still from Luke 2), we return full circle and the feast day is now entitled the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.
The church through her history has constantly had to review and revise the yearly liturgical calendar. The goal is always to proclaim Jesus to the world, and if that means adding a new saint to the calendar, emphasizing a different aspect of a mystery of Christ’s life, or invoking Mary under a new title (to give just a couple examples), the church tries to make the right prudential judgement for that period. Pray for our church and our pope, that this might be done well! And know that you always have freedom in choosing devotions and meditations for your own spiritual life. Pass onto our young people the meaning of Christ’s circumcision! The truth there in Luke 2 is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”
Father Dominic Rankin is parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and has a license in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Rome.