Peace, love, and innocence—these are the themes of Christmas honored by our culture. “Peace on earth, can it be?” croons David Bowie alongside Bing Crosby in a memorable television special. Movies like “Love, Actually” and songs like “All I Want for Christmas is You” unite the holiday season with romantic affection. All the customs associated Santa Claus, in turn, venerate the innocence of childhood.
This is all fine, to a point. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, the innocent Prince of Peace who is the embodiment of God’s love for humanity. Yet the birth of Christ is also a story of suffering, poverty, and persecution, which is why three of the Christian feast days directly following Christmas honor the memories of some of the church’s earliest and greatest martyrs—St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and St. Thomas Becket. We keep their stories in the background of our holiday celebrations.
St. Stephen, the First Christian Martyr
The 26th of December is typically associated with a continuation of Christmas festivities—leftovers from the feast, kids (and parents) playing with all their new toys, families going out to the movies. It is also the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr in Christian history.
The Bible’sActs 6 tells us that Stephen was a deacon in the church in Jerusalem in the months following Christ’s resurrection. He was “full of faith… grace and power.” His virtue and spiritual authority irked members of one of the synagogues in Jerusalem, who conspired to murder him.
These men “stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and set up false witnesses.” This persecution bears marked similarity to the means by which Jesus’ opponents sought to entrap him. Stephen confidently met his accusers with a rousing sermon that ends provocatively with him declaring:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” A mob of his opponents rushed upon him, carrying him outside the city, and stoned him to death. As he died, Stephen prayed, again following the template of Christ, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
This was the first episode in history of a person being murdered for being a follower of Christ.
The Holy Innocents, Proto-Martyrs
Two days after the church celebrates the feast of St. Stephen, on December 28, it honors those it calls the “Holy Innocents.” These are the children, newborns to age two, who were murdered in response to an edict by King Herod of Judea.
Herod was aware of a prophecy in the Book of Micah in the Old Testament that reads, in part: “But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me, one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” The prophet Micah foretold of a child who would rule Israel.
Another prophecy found in Deuteronomy offered similar information: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed…” This second prophecy also foretold of a child who would rule Israel, and defeat Edom — a particularly startling warning for Herod, who was an Edomite!
After meeting with the magi from the East who followed a star directing them to this newborn king, Herod determined to stamp out what he perceived as a direct threat to his reign. He ordered all children in the vicinity of Bethlehem up to the age of two to be killed. This brutal but expedient measure, Herod thought, would ensure that any child who might fulfill the prophecy would be killed.
Yet an angel warned Joseph in a dream to flee Bethlehem for Egypt, thus ensuring Christ’s survival. Historians estimate that Herod’s campaign of murder probably resulted in the deaths of 20 or 30 children. These are the “Holy Innocents” who, although not conscientiously dying as martyrs for Christ, are proto-martyrs, in that they die solely because of their association with him. These innocent children are in effect made holy by being murdered for the sake of Christ.
St. Thomas Becket, Martyr for Religious Freedom
The very next day after the feast of the Holy Innocents, on the 29th of December, the church celebrates the feast day of St. Thomas Becket, one of Christian history’s most famous martyrs. Becket was one of the most prominent and influential men in the kingdom of England during the reign of Henry II in the mid-twelfth century.
Becket was one of Henry’s closest companions during his childhood and early reign and was expected to be one of the king’s most faithful supporters. Thus the king maneuvered to have Becket nominated and confirmed as archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ecclesial office in the realm. Henry hoped that Becket would prioritize his political objectives over those of the church. Becket, however, had other plans.
A transformation occurred in Becket as he assumed the new role of archbishop. He developed ascetic religious practices and became a man of prayer. He frustrated Henry’s many efforts to exert control over the church, even fleeing to the European continent for a few years to escape Henry’s wrath. In 1170 Henry relented and allowed Becket to return to England, although Becket was soon again seeking to preserve the independence of the church.
The king, annoyed by the religious obstinacy of his once-close friend, muttered something in the presence of several knights that was interpreted as a command to kill Becket. Four of Henry’s knights traveled to Canterbury, where they confronted the archbishop and hacked him to death. In short order, Becket was honored across Europe as a martyr for Christ and the independence of the church. Henry, in turn, performed public penance to atone for murdering his old friend.
A Better Context for Christmas
Our culture’s emphasis on love, peace, and innocence at Christmastime, although laudable, has a tendency to obscure the darker reality of what the holiday signifies. As the stories of Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and Thomas Becket demonstrate, there is much resistance within man towards God and his plan for the human race.
Jesus was born into poverty, in a town not his own, surrounded by barnyard animals and strangers. Although innocent, and on a divine mission of peace and love, men sought to murder him from the moment he was born. The story of Christmas must remind us that, no matter how good-intentioned, we retain within us the tendency to fight against Christ’s coming into our lives. Whenever the truths of the Christian faith conflict with our personal goals and aspirations, or how we want to live, or how we want to spend our time and money, we’re liable to react with hate and violence, just as Herod did.
The Holy Innocents are a salient testimony of how man’s selfish, self-glorifying desires can ultimately result in all manner of terrible crimes. The death of St. Stephen in turn reminds us that we are often unwilling to hear the truth about ourselves, preferring instead to ignore our sins. The feast day of St. Thomas Becket tells us that we should always guard against the state’s inclination to crush any religious belief or institution that interferes with the extension of its power.
All three in their own way point us to these unfortunate truths, just as much as they also uniquely represent peace, love, and innocence. Moreover, Christmas itself—with its story of Mary and Joseph seeking solace on a dark, lonely night in Bethlehem while Herod plans their child’s murder—exists precariously between these two realities of man’s desire for redemption, and his prideful, selfish disdain for God.
To truly celebrate Christmas, we need to understand and appreciate this deeper spiritual context. St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and St. Thomas Becket help show us the way.