(This is the first of two posts about the Solemnity of Christmas. While I had intended to post these on Christmas Day, at least I am doing so within the Octave.)
If you pay attention to the liturgy, then you might be aware that we honor a string of martyrs immediately after Christmas: St. Stephen the Protomartyr on Dec. 26, the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28, and St. Thomas Becket on Dec. 30. The joy of Christmas is tied to the witness of the martyrs; the Incarnation of Our Lord calls forth this witness on our part. That is the Providence of celebrating these martyrs within the Octave of Christmas.
In this post, I’ll focus on a martyr of the Christmas Octave who is often overlooked: St. Anastasia. I’ll also explore the significance of her name, which means “Resurrection.”
A bit about St. Anastasia
The Roman Rite celebrates three Masses on Christmas: the midnight Mass, the Mass at dawn, and the Mass in the day. Each of these Masses has a station church assigned to it. A station church is a church in or near Rome where it was customary for the Pope to offer Mass on a particular day. For example, each day of Lent has its own station. So too does each Mass of Christmas:
1.) Midnight Mass: Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (at the Crib)
2.) Mass at dawn: Basilica of Sant’Anastasia al Palatino
3.) Mass in the day: Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
The selection of Santa Maria Maggiore is obvious for the midnight Mass and the Mass in the day; this basilica is built in honor of Our Lord’s Mother and houses the relic of Our Lord’s Crib. Santa Maria Maggiore is also the station church for Christmas Eve.
With all of the other Masses of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day taking place at Santa Maria Maggiore, the station at Sant’Anastasia al Palatino (St. Anastasia on the Palatine Hill) bears some explanation. The primary focus of the Mass at dawn is the Birth of Christ, but there is also a commemoration of St. Anastasia of Sirmium, a martyr of the early Church.* In addition to being the dies natalis (birthday) of Our Lord, December 25 is the day of St. Anastasia’s martyrdom, her heavenly dies natalis. Our Lord was born on earth on December 25, and St. Anastasia was born in Heaven.**
For the details of St. Anastasia’s life, I refer you to this Wikipedia article. We don’t have much reliable historical information about St. Anastasia other than that she died in the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian at Sirmium in what is now Serbia. Sirmium was one of several cities that had replaced Rome as capital of the Empire.
Despite her relative obscurity, St. Anastasia stands out in the Roman liturgy. She is the last of the saints named in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I in the Novus Ordo), when the priest invokes the following female martyrs: “Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all Thy saints” (emphasis added).
The name Anastasia
The name Anastasia comes from the Greek word for resurrection, anastasis, literally a “standing back up.” If Wikipedia is to be believed, the Basilica of Sant’Anastasia might originally have been the Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis) before it was re-dedicated to St. Anastasia. In Constantinople, the saint’s relics were interred in a church that had previously been named for the Resurrection, the Church of the Anastasis being a logical resting place for St. Anastasia.
On the earthly dies natalis of Our Lord, St. Anastasia celebrates her heavenly dies natalis. She died a witness for the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. On Christmas Day, St. Anastasia died in the hope of the Resurrection.***
Christmas and Easter
So, on Christmas Day, we commemorate a martyr named for the Resurrection of Our Lord. As a number of writers have pointed out, Christmas points forward to the Cross. In the commemoration of the Saint Anastasia, it also points forward to the Resurrection and to Easter.
How does Christmas point forward to the Resurrection, an event normally associated with Easter?
1.) On Christmas, Our Lord revealed His passible human Body, in which He would one day suffer and die. On Easter, having suffered and died on Good Friday, Our Lord revealed His risen, glorified, impassible Body.
2.) On Christmas, Our Lord miraculously emerged from the Virgin’s womb. On Easter, Our Lord emerged from the sealed Tomb. On the Octave of Easter, He also passed through the locked doors of the Cenacle.
3.) On Christmas, the Only-Begotten of the Father was born as the Son of Man. On Easter, neophytes (the sons and daughters of men) are reborn (and resurrected) as sons and daughters of God in the Sacrament of Baptism. Easter is the Passover of the Lord, when the first-born of Israel are reborn by passing through the waters of Baptism.
4.) On Christmas, Our Lord was born in the solemnity of the night, in the depths of the Grotto of Bethlehem. On Easter, Our Lord was reborn from the dead in the solemnity of the night, in the depths of the Holy Sepulcher.
5.) On Christmas, Our Lord was born to us as the “sun of righteousness” rising in the East–O Oriens! The Light of God burst forth from the darkness. Consider that the Church commemorates St. Anastasia at *dawn* on Christmas Day, when the sun is rising again in the East–the metaphorical rebirth/anastasis of the sun. On Easter, St. Mary Magdalen discovered the Resurrection just before dawn. Like the sun rising again at dawn, Our Lord rose again from the dead. And it is from the East that He shall come again to judge the living and the dead on the Last Day.
6.) On Christmas, angels and men did homage to Our Lord at His Birth. On Easter, angels and men did homage to Our Lord at His Resurrection.
7.) On Christmas, Our Lady and St. Joseph wrapped Our Lord in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger in a cave. On Good Friday, Our Lady and St. Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Our Lord’s Body in a shroud and laid Him in a rock-hewn tomb. On Easter, Sts. Peter and John found the shroud in the empty tomb.
8.) On Christmas, Our Lord was honored by Jewish shepherds. On Epiphany, the Gentiles honored Him in the persons of the Magi. On Easter, Jews witnessed the Resurrection. Soon after Pentecost, Gentile converts started to join the Church.
Concluding meditations on the Mass
According to the Baronius Press Missal, the three Masses of Christmas each focus on one of Our Lord’s three births:
1.) The midnight Mass honors Our Lord’s temporal birth at Bethlehem.
2.) The Mass at dawn honors Our Lord’s spiritual birth in the souls of the just.
3.) The Mass in the day honors Our Lord’s eternal birth in the bosom of the Father.
It is fitting that the Mass that honors Our Lord’s spiritual birth in our souls should commemorate St. Anastasia. The spiritual birth of Christ in our souls is the resurrection of our spiritual life, the life of grace. If we persevere in this grace, we shall be resurrected unto glory on the Last Day.
The Mass brings us to the Cenacle, Calvary, and Holy Sepulcher, the scenes of the Paschal Mystery. But Mass also brings us to Nazareth (for the Annunciation), the house of St. Elizabeth (for the Visitation), Bethlehem (for the Nativity), and the Temple (for the Presentation and Finding in the Temple). Our Lord becomes incarnate on the altar. He comes to help us and to free us from sin. In turn, we do Him homage as did the angels and shepherds at Bethlehem, we offer Him to the Father, and we “find” Him in His Father’s house. Not only the Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary are to be found in the Mass, but the Joyful Mysteries as well.
Christ, the Bread of Life, was born in Bethlehem, which means in Hebrew “the House of Bread.” On the altar at Mass, Our Lord becomes incarnate again. He hides His risen and glorified Body under the species of passible bread and wine. Between His First Coming and His Second Coming, Our Lord perpetuates His Incarnation in His Mystical Body, the Church, nourished by Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist. We are His passible members, until one day, God willing, we shall rise and be glorified with Christ Our Head.
The priest lays the Eucharistic Body of Our Lord on the altar cloths, as once Our Lord was laid in the manger in swaddling clothes, and in the sepulcher in a shroud. The altar is the “manger” from which Christians are nourished with Our Lord’s Body and Blood, in the hope of rising with Him one day.
As wise men once followed a star in the East to honor Our Lord at His Birth, let us look to the East (ad Orientem) at Mass, where the Babe of Bethlehem comes to us again in the Eucharist. Like the holy martyr St. Anastasia, let us look east to the risen, glorified Lord in His Second Coming.
Sancta Anastasia, ora pro nobis!
*In the Traditional Latin Mass, at least. I don’t know to what extent the Novus Ordo commemorates St. Anastasia on December 25.
**In a sense, both Our Lord and St. Anastasia were reborn on this day. Our Lord, born of the Father from all eternity, was “reborn” in time. May He be reborn in our souls as well. St. Anastasia, born once on earth, was reborn in Heaven, the fulfillment of her spiritual rebirth in Baptism.
***Note that St. Anastasia is the last saint invoked by name in the Roman Canon. At the very end of this impressive list of Apostles and martyrs, we have a name signifying the Resurrection, the destiny of all saints. Also, note that there are two lists of saints, or intercessions, in the Roman Canon. The first intercession comes before the Consecration and after the Commemoration of the Living. The second intercession, where St. Anastasia is the last saint named, comes after Consecration, and immediately after the Commemoration of the Dead. The somber tone of the Commemoration of the Dead carries over into the second intercession, which ends with the hopeful allusion to the Resurrection in the name Anastasia. Note also the felicitous names Felicitas (Latin for “Happiness”) and Perpetua (Latin for “Everlasting,” whence we get the word “perpetual”), which point forward to the perpetual happiness of Heaven.