The three days following Christmas are, for me, the best example of how saints’ feasts can complement and explain the events of salvation history commemorated in the ordinary liturgical year. Even those of us who have formed the good devotion of daily Mass may miss these feasts as they return to friends and family for the holidays. For me, personally, they are the most poignant moments in the year.
First, there is the feast of Stephen, protomartyr (i.e. first martyr) and deacon. He holds pride of place right after John the Baptist in the canon of Mass. If all the anticipation of Advent has deceived us so that we begin to forget the kind of mission that the Messiah undertook, here is Stephen a perfect imitation of Christ. And if our ultimate hope and confidence rests in Good Friday pointing to Easter, we cannot help seeing St. Stephen as a sign of contradiction to our Advent expectations that traces a quick path from the manger of Bethlehem to the foot of the cross on Calvary.
Next, there is the feast of John the Evangelist. While he is not a martyr in the sense that we restrict the word today, his denial of all earthly attachments for the sake of Christ earned him what Church Fathers called “white martyrdom”. Of the apostles he alone would not suffer martyrdom in the flesh; and if you have ever seen a depiction of the crucifixion you will remember why. He alone of all the apostles also stood there at the foot of the cross. Again, at the moment the Church commemorates the birth of Christ, she turns our attention to Our Lord’s Passion.
Last, there is the feast of the Holy Innocents. No fault, save the common lot of all descendants of Adam, lay in these children. If Stephen accepted martyrdom in his will and suffered it in his body, while John only underwent it in his will, these innocents are the first witnesses to the Messiah in the flesh. The Church in her wisdom does not forget that Christian joy and sorrow are but two ways of looking at the same situation. There is sorrow in man’s condition and joy in God’s redemption of that condition. As Msgr. Ronald Knox said,
“[W]e shall find that Christian sorrow and Christian joy have their roots nearer together than we fancied; that the desire for God’s will to be done perfectly in us and in all creatures, which is the Christian religion, bears a double fruit of sadness and gladness.”
As I have thought of these feasts over the years, I see them like the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold for Stephen, who, like Lawrence his fellow deacon, oversaw the treasury of the church but also because his martyrdom is a rich vein of ore that lies at the heart of the Church. For without Stephen, would we have a Paul? Frankincense for John, since his Gospel with its Bread of Life discourse and his Revelation with its depiction of the Mass are wrapped up in the mysteries of the priestly ministry of Our Lord. Myrrh––which was mixed with wine given to our Lord on the Cross (Mark 15:23)––for the Holy Innocents.
For many a Christmas past my thoughts have been focused on Ss. Stephen and John as examples of Christian perfection. In pride I enjoyed thinking that I would be able to give as bold a witness as Stephen, even unto death. In the same vein as St. Augustine (“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”), I secretly worried that God would actually take me at my word; and sought in practice to try to emulate John. Being an academic, I could reason and resolve when I reflected upon the life of these two men. I gave little thought to the Holy Innocents.
This Advent my wife gave birth to a baby girl. And this is a cause of great joy this Christmas. I am sure many a Christmas from now will fill me with gladness to see lights that remind me of the Christmas lights in the hospital parking lot at 3am, and cheesy Christmas songs will serve less as earworms than as mnemonics for taking my boys through the lobby to meet their sister.
And yet, I am sad this Advent and Christmas. Before this girl we lost two children in utero. Their loss is a great emptiness and a strong mystery in my heart. This Christmas my spirit looks to the Holy Innocents and my prayers are with those who experience this season with sadness or grief for those they have lost. And while I am preparing my soul to rejoice in our Savior’s birth in this world, my sorrow reminds me he did so to prepare us for another world:
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” - Revelations 21:4