Devotion to the Holy Family flourished in the Renaissance. The leading artists of the time – Michelangelo, Raphael, El Greco, Rembrandt, Rubens, to name a few – often portrayed the Holy Family in their work. When this feast day was instituted in 1921, it was originally assigned to the third Sunday after Christmas. It is now observed on the first Sunday following Christmas, unless Christmas itself falls on a Sunday, in which case Holy Family is celebrated on December 30.
The ‘Holy Infants’ are the male children recorded slain by King Herod in Matthew’s Gospel. This unique episode in Jesus’ life is not found in any other document, secular or religious, yet this incident, along with the account of the flight into Egypt, presents the ancient tradition of the early Church: Jesus as the ‘new Isreal’, persecuted and forced to flee, and the ‘new Moses’, marvelously rescued from the slaughter of the Hebrew children. This feast also points to Jesus as the Messiah and foreshadows the secular opposition Jesus will later meet, culminating in his Passion.
Also known as John the Divine, the apostle John was the son of Zebedee and the brother of James, and a fisherman. John was very close to Jesus and was present at the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the Agony in the Garden. John is the “beloved disciple” referred to in the gospels. While ancient scholarship linked him to the Fourth Gospel, the Book of Revelation and the three epistles that bear his name, modern scholarship disputes this notion. John is believed to have died at Ephesus in extreme old age. In Christian iconography, his symbol is the eagle.
This celebration dates back to about the 4th century. Because his name is Greek, it is assumed Stephen was a Jew of the diaspora (Jewish communities outside Israel) who had resettled in Jerusalem. Stephen is the first-named among the seven deacons chosen to minister to Greek-speaking Christians in Jerusalem at the very dawn of the Christian church. He is the first recorded martyr of the New Testament.
A feast dedicated to Mary’s conception first appeared in the 7th century and by the 12th century it was firmly established in England. In the 13th century, great thinkers such as St. Bernard and St. Thomas Aquinas debated whether Mary could have been born without original sin if, as St. Paul says, all persons are born in sin (Romans 5.12). By the 19th century, the theological debate was resolved and in 1854 Pius IX defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of faith. In 1846, the Catholic Church of the United States declared this to be its patronal feast.