This past week marked a string of post-Christmas feasts, and the first four especially are sad, in their own way.
The day after Christmas we mark the death of the Deacon Stephen, the “proto-martyr.” In a scene related in Acts 6-7, Stephen (whose name, in Greek, interestingly means “crowned one”) defies the established authority of the Sanhedrin with the quality and content of his preaching of Jesus. He is dragged out of the City and stoned to death for blasphemy. Was this legal or was this a lynching? It is uncertain. But the words Luke puts into the dying Stephen’s mouth echo those of Jesus on the Cross—words of forgiveness for his attackers and surrender into God’s hands.
John the Evangelist/Apostle is remembered next—poignantly, the only one of the Twelve traditionally not martyred (though a church in Rome commemorates an attempt on his life). Regarded (again, traditionally) as the youngest of those first called, he lives beyond the others’ lives, watching them die, one by one, until he alone is left among the original followers of Jesus. His was a martyrdom of loss rather than of torture and death, but a real martyrdom, nonetheless.
The silent witnesses destroyed by the paranoia of Herod, the Holy Innocents are victims less of any act of faith and more a fulfillment of the prophecy that Jesus’ arrival would bring a sword, not peace. They are the testimony of the statement of Jesus (John 3:19ff) that although the Light (Christ) came into the world, too many others preferred darkness to light. The “Coventry Carol” is musical tribute to these little ones.
Thomas à Becket was murdered in the Canterbury cathedral during worship on 29 December 1170, ostensibly the result of a fit of rage in King Henry II, whom Becket defied in terms of the relative authority of Church and State, but also (and more importantly) with the conniving of other jealous bishops. His end was the beginning of a tremendous pattern of devotions, culminating in pilgrimages to his shrine in Canterbury (the goal of Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales). Becket’s tomb was one of the most important pilgrimage sites (along with Rome, the Holy Land—if passage were possible—and Santiago de Campostela). Henry VIII ended it by destroying the shrine during the Reformation.
31 December/1 January: and end and a beginning. Pope St Sylvester’s reign witnessed the baptism of the Emperor Constantine—clearly, a beginning of great import and effect (and missed blessing) for the history of the Christian religion. But it is also the vigil of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God—the mother of Him who is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. It is His season, after all, that we celebrate. In Him, we mark those who died and in Whom they live. May we live in Him, as well.