Good friends of ours have a daughter named Anastasia. One day, long ago, I betrayed an astonishing ignorance by expressing curiosity about why she’d been named after a Russian princess instead of a saint. “What are you talking about?” my wife remonstrated with relish. “Anastasia is mentioned in the Roman Canon!”
She was right, of course, and I was justly chastened. But how could I’ve missed St. Anastasia in my hagiographic formation? As a convert, the lives of the saints were front and center in my acclimation to things Catholic, and yet, somehow, Anastasia fell completely off my map.
Nonetheless, and surprisingly, I didn’t immediately remedy that glaring oversight. And for years now, I’ve been shrugging whenever Anastasia’s name comes up in Eucharistic Prayer I. “Yup,” I’ll think to myself, “she’s definitely a saint – whoever she is.” Sheer laziness, no doubt, and in line with my inexcusable neglect of the other obscure names in that ancient liturgy – like Marcellinus, for instance, and Sixtus. I’ve also taken refuge in the citation of St. Cecilia – the namesake of my own daughter. I’ll anticipate its arrival as the other martyrs tick by, then sigh and smile and say a prayer for my girl as St. Anastasia is finally referenced at the end. In this way, my oblivion has persisted undisturbed.
I try to get to daily Mass during the Octave of Christmas, and this past week, the various celebrants of the Masses I’ve attended have all opted for EP I. Consequently, Anastasia’s name has briefly flittered in my consciousness, day after day, but on Friday, something changed. For whatever reason, that day, her name really popped out at me – grace, no doubt, and maybe a prompt from my guardian angel (or perhaps the saint herself?). “Anastasia,” I murmured. “Anastasia? No clue.” I determined on the spot to track down her story.
Which I did – in several sources. And you know what? There isn’t one.
At least, there isn’t a reliable one. The popular 6th-century passio that purportedly tells her dramatic tale is really just pious fiction – as is her connection with another obscure EP I martyr, Chrysogonus. Admittedly, the Romans have been venerating Anastasia since the 5th century, when her name was inserted in the Roman Canon, and there’s even a venerable basilica dedicated to her at the base of the Palatine Hill. However, it’s likely that the church’s construction was simply underwritten by a similarly named Roman matron, and its association with the saint simply evolved over time.
The truth is that we know next to nothing about EP I’s Anastasia. In fact, my favorite source for saint lore – John Coulson’s excellent Concise Biographical Dictionary (1958) – includes only a couple tentative lines about her: “Possibly martyred under Diocletian at Sirmium in Pannonia, she is commemorated at the second mass of Christmas.” Even the date of her death is up for grabs – “+304?” is how it reads in Coulson.
But did you catch that bit about the second Christmas Mass? You might be aware that there are different sets of readings for Christmas that correspond with different times of day. This is a holdover from when three distinct liturgies were celebrated for the feast: One at midnight, one at dawn, and one later in the day. For centuries, popes would celebrate this Christmas triduum at different locations in Rome, with a procession from one to the next. Thus, the feast of the incarnation would commence at Midnight on December 25 in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and it would conclude with a late-morning Mass at St. Peter’s. But in between, at dawn, there was a stop at the church dedicated to St. Anastasia – the mysterious heroine of the Faith whose martyrdom is recorded as having taken place on Christmas day – and the liturgy celebrated there was in honor of her rather than the Word made flesh.
So, my intuition (inspiration?) this week to finally follow up on my Anastasia lacuna is indeed timely: She’s not only a Christmas saint, she’s the Christmas saint whose legacy used to merit a liturgical detour amid the pivotal feast’s most solemn observances.
But…why? There’s all manner of complicated historical speculation about this, but, for me, I’d like to credit Anastasia’s obscurity for this singular (albeit long discontinued) honor. What better way to emphasize the poverty and humility of our infant savior than by giving a nod to this most anonymous of saints?
Plus, there’s also this: Anastasia, in Greek, means “she of the Resurrection.” She’s not only the Christmas saint, but an Easter one as well! Her prominence in the ancient Christmas triduum could be seen as a subtle nominal precursor of the even greater Triduum which followed in the spring.
We no longer commemorate Anastasia in a special way on Christmas mornings, but I know I’ll be listening for her name in the Roman Canon from now on and asking for her intercession. Like Anastasia, I want to be of the Resurrection, too. Alleluia.