‘Twas the night after Christmas, and all through the land Christians were sweeping away the remnants of gift wrappings, falling from their month-long sugar high, planning when to dispose of the dying greenery decking their halls, and dreading the credit card bills due to arrive in January. Even among the Catholics, who know (or should know) that Christmas is a season that can last through Candlemas depending on which reckoning of the season they prefer, there can sometimes be a feeling of “Was that really what Christmas is all about?”
In the midst of deflated expectations and merrymaking burnout, it might come as a surprise that the Octave of Christmas contains a surprising number of feast days that have nothing to do with the holly-jolly spirit of our modern secular celebration of Christmas. I never gave too much thought to this myself until a few years ago, when this apologetics question came in from an inquirer:
Why does the Church celebrate the Holy Innocents before Epiphany? I don’t think the children were killed prior to the arrival of the Magi at the manger.
The arrangement of the Church’s liturgical calendar is not always intended to be in chronological order. Sometimes feast days are arranged by theological significance.
There are a slew of feast days right after Christmas that emphasize the fact that the events surrounding Christmas were an anticipation of Christ’s eventual suffering, death, and Resurrection. December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr after the establishment of the Church. December 27 is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, the Beloved Disciple who stood at the foot of the cross and received the Blessed Mother from Christ to be his own Mother. December 29 is the feast of St. Thomas à Becket, bishop and martyr. In the midst of this is December 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs after the birth of Christ.
Let’s look at the stories of these saints’ lives. We have St. Stephen, ordained a deacon to assist the apostles and to tend to the Church’s works of charity (Acts 6:1–6). He was martyred for his witness to God, and his martyrdom was one of the catalysts for the conversion of Saul, the great persecutor of Christians. In Stephen we first see how, as Tertullian noted in Apologeticus, the blood of the martyrs will become the seed of the Church. We also will see in Saul-turned-Paul how the imperfections of the saints may take a lifetime to overcome. Although St. Luke records in the book of Acts that Paul spoke of Stephen in telling his conversion story (Acts 22:20), Paul never mentions Stephen by name in any of his letters—even in places where it might seem appropriate for him to have done so (cf. Gal. 1:13–18). Perhaps Paul simply could not bring himself to commit to writing his memory of Stephen.
Next comes St. John the Evangelist. Alone among the apostles, he stood at the foot of Christ’s cross. To him Christ entrusted his Mother to be John’s Mother. John also would stand as representative for all Christians, for whom Christ’s Mother would become their Mother (John 19:26–27). John witnessed the blood and water pour out from the side of Christ (John 19:34). He is believed to have been the last of the apostles to die and the only one not to die a martyr. From John we learn that the Christian life requires perseverance, even when co-religionists desert us, and even when beloved friends die and leave us to carry on alone. If there is anything worse than a gruesome martyrdom, perhaps it is the responsibility to be the last living witness of an entire generation.
St. Thomas à Becket lived more than a thousand years after Stephen and John. Becket was martyred was because he challenged the right of the king (Henry II of England) to try one of Becket’s priests. While the relationship between Church and state has gone through many changes over the centuries, the human need for a supranational sanctuary to protect people who find themselves at odds with state authorities has not changed. These days, in countries like our own, that aid usually takes the form of providing spiritual care and addressing material needs, but it can occasionally include helping families remain together by offering temporary sanctuary to those who are trying to find a way to remain in a safe country. In many ways, Becket’s story anticipated that of St. Thomas More, who lived about 400 years after Becket and was martyred at the hands of another King of England named Henry. The lives of both of these saintly martyrs demonstrate that Christians will always have an uneasy relationship with the state. While we are called to obey and honor earthly leaders (e.g., Rom. 13:1–2), we are also called to preserve for God that which is God’s (cf. Luke 20:19–25).
Finally, there are the Holy Innocents. When King Herod was alerted to the possibility of a usurper to his throne, he set about to crush that threat. When the Magi did not return so that Herod could interrogate them as to the newborn King’s whereabouts, Herod decided to murder with ruthless efficiency all the baby boys who might have a claim to the position (Matt. 2:1–18). The Holy Innocents did not consciously know the cause for which they died, but the blood they shed was quite possibly the only blood shed by martyrs that directly protected God’s very life. Lay Catholic apologist Frank Sheed once wrote of the Holy Innocents:
There is anguish for us, twenty centuries after, in thinking of the slain babies and their parents. For the babies the agony was soon over; in the next world they would know whom they had died to save and for all eternity would have that glory. For the parents, the pain would have lasted longer; but at death they, too, must have found that there was a special sense in which God was in their debt, as he had never been indebted to any. They and their children were the only ones who ever agonized in order to save God’s life (To Know Christ Jesus, pp. 45–46).
The Christmas octave closes on January 1, with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. That is the current name of this feast, but it was once known as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. According to Jewish law, a newborn boy must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. As the child of observant Jews, Jesus would have been circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. Sheed speculated that Christ’s circumcision was probably performed by St. Joseph since to do so was “a father’s privilege.”
This blog post cannot delve into all of the history and meaning behind circumcision as practiced by the Jewish people. Suffice to say here that it was a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Since the covenant was patriarchal, it was fitting that the sign involve the male generative organ. But perhaps Christians might speculate further, and wonder if there is special significance to Jesus having undergone the rite.
Think about it. Two pious, saintly Jews—one immaculately conceived and the other a just man who recoiled at causing a grown woman pain, never mind a newborn child (cf. Matt. 1:19)—would never have deliberately done anything to cause injury to their child. Unless. . . . Unless it was commanded of them by the tenets of their religion. Unless God himself required it of them and their people through the covenant he had made with their forefathers.
Because Jesus was circumcised, the Infant Jesus suffered and bled. His blood was mingled with all of the seemingly senseless shedding of blood by innocents down through the centuries to follow. The shedding of innocent blood, even by those unaware of the meaning of their sacrifice, can have value because of the innocent blood shed by God the Newborn Babe.
Of course, it also prefigured the definitive sacrifice Christ made upon the cross. As Bishop Fulton Sheen pointed out, Jesus Christ was the only man in human history who was born to be killed. He did not come into this world to live as do all other men; he specifically came to die so that all other men might have eternal life.
The story of every human life begins with birth and ends with death. In the person of Christ, however, it was his death that was first and his life that was last. . . . It was not so much that his birth cast a shadow on his life and thus led to his death; it was rather that the cross was first, and cast its shadow back to his birth (Life of Christ, p. 19).
And that is what Christmas is all about.