It is the season of joy and the time of good tidings, so why is the Church’s calendar for the Twelve Days of Christmas packed with so many martyrdoms? On December 26th we celebrated the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, who was stoned to death. Today marks the Holy Innocents, those children of Bethlehem killed by the ruthlessness of a tyrant. Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Thomas Becket, who was murdered near the altar of a cathedral in medieval England.
Why do we remember and celebrate all of this death in the Season of Christmas? Because the Holy Innocents gave their life for the newborn Savior. Stephen, the first martyr, chose to conform his life to that of Christ so fully that he willingly died for Him. And St. Thomas Becket stood firm in the faith in order to accompany the Holy Child Jesus entering this world on Christmas day.
Let us take a moment to remember what we really celebrate on the Feast day for a martyr. Is it the day of their death? Well, yes, but it is actually more than that. What we also celebrate is their birth into a new life—the abundance of eternal life in heaven. So, in a sense, it is a kind of “birthday.” Thus, although all of this talk of death strikes a somber note in us, there is also a strong undercurrent of joy in these Feast days.
So explains Thomas Becket’s character in T.S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral: “Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn for the sins of the world that has martyred them; but we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven.”
And that is why it is so fitting that we celebrate these martyrs around Christmas. Christ who was “of heaven” was born on earth, so that those “of the earth” might be able to be born into heaven.
Bonus: Maintaining Hope
Hope is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality is less real – than it looks. Hope is the hunch that the overwhelming brutality of facts that oppress and repress us (and cause us to suffer) – is not the last word.
Hope is the suspicion that reality is more complex than the realists want us to believe; that the frontiers of “the possible” are not determined by the limits of the actual; and that in a miraculous and unexplained way, life is constantly opening up creative events, opening the way to freedom and resurrection. But the two – suffering and hope – must live side by side and, in a way, from each other. Suffering without hope produces resentment and despair. But, hope without suffering creates illusions, naïveté, and drunkenness.
So let us plant fruit trees – even though we who plant them may never eat from them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. (From the Brazilian theologian, Rubem Alves)