The Magnitude of Eight: Why the Church Celebrates in Octaves

what is an octave in the catholic church easter octave christmas octave

Most people are familiar with the creation story found in the first chapter of Genesis. God creates the world in an ordered fashion over the course of seven, poetically-flowing days. It is such a well-known narrative, that even individuals of other faiths (or no faith at all) know the story. However, a Christian concept  that is not as commonplace throughout the world is the notion of the eighth day of creation.

You see, in light of Christ’s Death and Resurrection, everything is “made new,” sin and death are no more, and all of creation is restored to its original form. Thus, in the eyes of the Church, every Sunday is also known as “the eighth day” or “the Octave,” and the number eight became symbolic of new life.

Historically Speaking

Under the Roman Emperor Constantine, whose legalization of Christianity ended the persecution of the Early Church, Christianity boomed.

While the blood of the martyrs certainly bore great witness to the Truth and miraculously attracted more people to convert, the formal legalization of the Faith allowed for the construction of actual buildings. Gone were the days of worshipping God hidden away in private houses and the catacombs!

After construction was completed, the dedication of the basilicas at Tyre and Jerusalem were observed. The festivities lasted for eight days, signifying “new life” in the Church.

After these once-in-a-Church-lifetime occasions, it was decided that major liturgical feasts should also be celebrated with an octave in order to help the congregation more fully comprehend their magnitude.

Explosion and Revision of Octaves

Over the next eight centuries (how’s that for irony?), people got a little “slap-happy” with the practice of octaves. They began to celebrate almost every feast with eight days of jubilee. And while the Church is all about celebrating the glorious things God has done through and for the Saints, some of these observances were causing confusion among the faithful. If the feast of Christ’s Resurrection is being celebrated in the same way as the feast of a “lowly” Saint, it is bound to breed some misunderstanding of the difference in significance between the two.

Thus, many revisions were made by multiple popes over the course of a few centuries.

Catholic Feasts with Octaves

As of 1969, only two feasts are deemed worthy of a liturgical octave, Christmas and Easter.


The Christmas Octave runs from Christmas Day (December 25th) until the Feast of the Solemnity of Mary (January 1st), with related feasts being celebrated during that time period. These include St. Stephen, St. John, the Holy Innocents and The Holy Family.

Liturgically, the Church walks us through the Gospel’s infancy narrative. This is encouragement to take these mysteries to prayer, to greater reflect on this Child and the wonders of His birth, and to personally and intimately come to a fuller understanding of Who He is. Not just as a Church Figurehead, but in relation to each one of us specifically.

Thus the feasts, celebrated together as an octave, are meant to help propel us forward in our comprehension of Christ.

On the final day of the Christmas Octave, we get an answer as to who this Child is: He is God. We rejoice in this together—as it is another Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics—and we honor Mary, the sacred God-bearer.


Easter is the mother of all other feasts. I love this imagery (and took it straight from the USCCB), both for its natural symbolism and its modern meaning.

Naturally speaking, mothers give life. The Resurrection “gives life” and meaning to every other aspect of our Faith, almost literally! Our Church wouldn’t exist if Christ hadn’t risen from the dead. Had this not occurred, the world could have concluded that Jesus was a fraud and Christianity wouldn’t be a thing. But it did happen. This makes Easter Week the greatest week of the entire Church year.

Modernly speaking, if something is “the mother,” it is the boss. It is a major finding, strikingly powerful, and/or something that is hard (if not impossible) to overtake. This is also true of Easter. It is “the mother” of all feasts.

Unlike at Christmas, no other feast is ever celebrated during the Easter Octave. For eight days straight, every day is Easter (liturgically speaking). The Gospels throughout the Masses that week all tell different aspects of the Easter story.

What a lot of Catholics don’t realize is that most of these stories actually took place on the same day as Jesus’ Resurrection. The ones that don’t happened only days later. All of them are a part of the Resurrection story, which is why all eight days are Easter.

  • Easter Monday // Mary and the Other Mary find the Tomb Empty (Mt 28:8-15)
  • Easter Tuesday // Mary Magdalene Returns to the Tomb, Weeps, Sees the Resurrected Lord (Jn 20:11-18)
  • Easter Wednesday // Jesus Appears to Two Disciples on the Road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35)
  • Easter Thursday // Jesus Appears to the Hidden Apostles (Lk 24:35-48)
  • Easter Friday // Jesus Helps the Apostles Fish (Jn 21:1-14)
  • Easter Saturday // Jesus Instructs the Apostles to See, Believe, and Preach the Gospel (Mk 16:9-15)

Why These Readings?

To the faithful, Jesus made His identity clear. He was alive again (proven by His appetite). He was the same person (helping the Apostles make a great catch of fish), but glorified (He could walk through walls, appear and disappear).

By choosing these readings as the Liturgy of the Easter Octave, our modern Apostles are echoing these same truths to us. They are propelling us forward in our understanding of what the Resurrection meant for all mankind, but also for us individually. Jesus is God and God had mercy on humanity.

This truth was specifically highlighted for the Church by the great Pope St. John Paul II who officially declared the Sunday after Easter to be Divine Mercy Sunday.

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How To Celebrate the Easter Octave

St. Augustine called the Easter Octave, “the days of mercy and pardon.” You can do anything to celebrate. Try to keep it centered around Christ, but also make it festive! Here are “eight” suggestions.

Go to Daily Mass

He died and rose to save us. We access those graces with every reception of the Eucharist. This is by far the best way to celebrate the Easter Octave. There are actually special graces promised to those who receive communion throughout the Octave, especially the Octave Day of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)!

Read the Gospel

Sometimes it’s impossible to get to daily Mass. If you can’t, make an effort to read and reflect on the daily Gospels. Seek out reflections and explanations from other knowledgeable sources.

Spend Time in a Garden

Be like Mary Magdalene, although you don’t have to weep while you’re there! Take a stroll, do some planting, have a picnic, and so on. Lots of Botanical Gardens offer free admission. Reflect on the connections between gardens and the spiritual life while you’re there.

Go Fishing

Just like the Apostles. They had one of the biggest catches of their lives after the Resurrection. It’s a reflective and restful endeavor, as well as a great bonding opportunity. You could also do this metaphorically

Go to the Beach

In another Gospel account, the Apostles encounter Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. They have a campfire, roast fish, and enjoy breakfast together. You could pack a picnic and take a day trip, provided you live close enough. If not, and you have the ability to do so, make a vacation of the week, citing liturgical living as the excuse.

Go to Confession

Return to the Lord just as St. Peter did. While on the beach, Peter and Jesus have a heart-to-heart. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” This is seen by many theologians as a “reversal” or redemption of the three times Peter denied Christ during His Passion. If you found yourself failing in love of others during the business of the Easter Triduum, this might be a good time to reconnect with Jesus in humility and accept His constant forgiveness.

Go for a Walk

Like Jesus and His disciples did on the road to Emmaus. Go by yourself as time of prayer and reflection, or go with friends and build community.

Break Bread With Friends

Like Jesus and His Apostles. It doesn’t have to literally be bread; simply share a special meal with friends and/or family. Maybe do something on theme, like preparing eight simple dishes (including entree, sides, and desserts).

No matter what you choose, the emphasis should be fun and festive as we rejoice in the mercy of God!

How will you be celebrating the Easter Octave? We want to know in the comments below!

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Grace Bellon is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She’s a lover of bearded men, rich coffee, cheesy puns, cuddly doggies, and Catholicism. You can find out more about her here (warned ya she liked cheesy puns).

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