One of the great joys of being Catholic is that Christmas last eight days, followed by a whole season for Christmas.While others grudgingly pack away the ornaments and tinsel on December 26, we have many more days of celebrating left.
A Trio of Martyrs
The liturgical calendar, however, takes an interesting turn once after December 25. The Church places before us the feasts of St. Stephen, St. John the Apostle, and the Holy Innocents. This trio of martyrs seems like a strange departure from the joy of the Christmas octave. Why do we celebrate these three feasts at this particular time of the year?
When we look more deeply at what we are celebrating at Christmas, these feasts make sense for Christ came to make us like Himself. These three martyrs offer us three different ways of evangelization. They remind us that, in the Nativity, we are called to always keep before us the human and divine realities, perfectly present in Jesus Christ.
The Descent of God to Humanity
Et verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. – John 1:14
In these simple words, St. John tells the entire story of Christmas. It lacks the drama to which we are accustomed: the multitude of angels directing the shepherds to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child, the Magi led by a star. Yet these words contain the fundamental Truth we celebrate at Christmas, and indeed, the core of Christianity.
The Word became flesh. Think about that for a moment. The Son of God didn’t just appear as a human being as in a vision. He didn’t choose to simply look like a human being. He actually became human. He who is not created deigned to take on the fleshly substance of creation. No longer is God a distant being, revealing himself through signs and wonders or through prophets. God is present to us in an intimate and unique way. Through the Incarnation, Christ was able to express His love for each and every person in a way that we could relate to as human beings.
To Draw Us to Divinity
The Word became flesh not only to draw near to humanity in its fallen state; the Word became flesh to draw us into the divinity of God. By taking on human substance, Christ reconciles us to the Father, allowing us to be His adopted sons and daughters. As Gaudium et spes, n. 22 puts it: “The Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it. The Son of God …worked with human hands; he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart, he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin.” Christ did not become man simply to understand the human condition or to leave us where we are. Instead, Christ became the partaker of our humanity so that we could partake in His divinity (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). God’s plan for us from the very beginning of time was for us to be united with him.
We accomplish this by carrying out the last directive Jesus gave before He ascended to Heaven: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15) To bear witness to Christ is precisely the example we have in the three feasts following Christmas day. We find in these saints examples of public witness, hidden witness, and faultless witness.
St. Stephen: The Public Witness
St. Stephen was ordained a deacon and he performed many “great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:5-8) Because of his persuasive arguments, he draws the negative attention of some of the Jews, including Saul. Stephen offers a brilliant defense when accused of blasphemy against Moses and God by the Sanhedrin. In refutation of the charge, he tells the story of the Jewish people back to them and is stoned to death.
St. Stephen’s life is a reminder to us that, though we presently reflect on and celebrate the Christ Child, the Incarnation has as its climax and fulfillment the Crucifixion. Stephen’s death is a direct result of bearing witness to the teachings of Christ. Even in death, his words are patterned after the last words of Christ. We see in St. Stephen that following Christ is not merely just the joy and delight brought by the beauty of a newborn child; it also entails suffering and self-sacrifice.
In St. Stephen, we have the example of a public witness to the faith. He willingly speaks of his belief in Christ as Messiah, despite likely knowing what would befall him. His martyrdom is of blood and intent for he acted willfully, out of love of God. He offers for us an example of courage and steadfastness in the face of persecution by others, to make a public confession of our faith.
St. John the Evangelist: The Hidden Witness
We have a different example of the witness in St. John the Evangelist. Unlike St. Stephen he was not martyred and died at an old age after finishing the book of Revelation. His witness was a hidden one, sacrifices made in the course of his daily life.
St. John must have suffered greatly in his earthly life. He was called the beloved disciple and must have had a very special and intimate relationship with Christ. He was the only apostle to remain with Christ at the Crucifixion and was entrusted the care of Mary by Jesus. Imagine the suffering he must have undergone helplessly watching one whom he loved so much being tortured and killed.
Even after the Resurrection and Ascension, St. John must have struggled with the longing for Christ. On a human level, we have a sense of this sadness when a loved one moves away or dies; imagine how much greater it was for St. John for the Lord. Yet, he continued to live everyday life, likely engaging in common, menial tasks as he cared for Mary. In his faithfulness to his daily work, St. John is an example of the bloodless martyrdom, hidden and known only to God alone. His actions demonstrate a willing witness of the love of God.
The Holy Innocents: The Faultless Witness
The third feast celebrated after Christmas day is, chronologically, most connected to the infancy narrative of Christmas. In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear of the raging King Herod, upset that the Magi have not returned, orders the death of all male children age two and younger. (Matthew 2:16-18) In so doing, the words of the prophet Jeremiah are fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamenting and weeping bitterly; it is Rachel weeping for her children; refusing to be comforted because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
St. Augustine described the situation of these Holy Innocents in this manner: “The precious death of any martyr deserves high praise because of his heroic confession; the death of these children is precious in the sight of God because of the beatitude they gained so quickly. For, already at the beginning of their lives, they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory. These then, whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mother’s bosom, are justly hailed as ‘infant martyr flowers;’ they were the Church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.”
These children, who died because of the Christ Child, are a witness to Christ in a way quite different from St. Stephen and St. John who willingly chose a particular course of action. They bear witness to Christ who was persecuted from the time of his birth. The shedding of their innocent blood reminds us of those who are thrust into the role of martyrdom not by any choice or willing of their own but because of the cruelty of others.
The Cradle’s Call to Martyrdom
The celebration of the martyrdoms of St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents is fitting following the Nativity for it reminds us that, through the Incarnation, we are called to focus on both the human and divine realities. Christ came to redeem humanity and to make us like Himself, a vocation which requires us to bear witness in large and small ways to the love of Christ. The message of Christmas, then, is not simply adoration of the Infant Christ, but also one of evangelization. May the intercession of St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents give us the courage to ascend to whatever martyrdom God calls us.