Christmas martyria: The Octave of the Word Made Flesh

By Msgr. Michael Heintz

A striking feature of the Western church’s festal calendar is the cycle of memorials and feasts, which “fill out” the Octave of Christmas. Unlike the Easter Octave, which suffers the vagaries one would expect from a movable feast, the days following the Solemnity of Christmas are fixed and chock-full: Stephen, John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents and Thomas Becket adorn the days following the Solemnity of the Nativity. Even more interestingly, with the possible exception of John the Evangelist — whose end is the subject of some dispute within the Tradition — all are martyrs. How can one make fruitful use of this festal and sanctoral convergence?

The remote origins of Christian martyrdom lie probably within Second Temple Judaism, in particular the experience recorded in the canonical and extra-canonical books of Maccabees, where martyrdom becomes sacrificial and the believer herself becomes, as it were, a temple, the locus of genuine sacrifice. More proximately, one encounters this phenomenon in the Book of Revelation, where persecution induced by Christian intransigence in the face of the Imperial Cult forms the immediate context for John’s visions, and where a nascent theology of Christian martyria is perhaps first articulated. On the heels of the Nativity, the Western Church commemorates a number of witnesses who offer fitting and elegant testimony to the Incarnation, for with their very bodies their testimony to the reality of the Word Made Flesh is itself made incarnate.

The Matthean text appointed for the Mass of St. Stephen (10.17-22) is apposite to the day: The Christian, in the face of opposition and hostility, should fearlessly witness to the faith. Stephen’s resilient conviction juxtaposed to his gentle demeanor toward his persecutors (Acts 7:60) reflects the Gospel’s call to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Mt 10:16). Further, Stephen’s act of faithful witness to Christ is set within the context of false witness about him (Acts 6:13; 7:58). The Spirit who is promised by Jesus to direct the disciples in their encounter with hostility (Mt 10:20) is present in Stephen’s greatest trial (Acts 7:55; 59). Stephen is often referred to in the Tradition as the proto-martyr. Yet for many of the first Christians, it is Christ himself who is the proto-martyr. This clearly is the teaching of the Book of Revelation, where Christ is referred to repeatedly as the “Faithful Witness” (ho martus ho pistos; Rev 1:5; 3:14): All subsequent martyrdom is conceived of solely in terms of his archetypal martyria. In the very early account of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne (c. 177/8 A.D.), the imprisoned and tortured martyrs-to-be are adamant in eschewing the title “martyr:” Christ alone is worthy of that name.

The traditions regarding the demise of St. John the Evangelist are more muddled. While traditionally the Church has not commemorated him as a martyr — the only apostle so celebrated — some earlier traditions, derived perhaps from the witness of the second-century bishop Papias of Hierapolis, suggest he, too, was martyred. Regardless, John’s witness to the Word Made Flesh is canonized in the prologue to the fourth Gospel, appointed for Mass on Christmas Day (Jn 1:1-18). The first reading assigned for Dec. 27 (1 Jn 1:1-4) gives further witness (marturoumen, v. 2): The God revealed in Christ, the word made flesh, is not some distant, remote, conceptual deity. Rather, He has made Himself the object of the human senses; recall that one of the preoccupations of John’s first letter is the real flesh and blood of Jesus the Christ. (“Antichrist” is his tag for the docetic disposition of those who oppose His coming in the flesh). John’s consistent martyria is to the palpable reality of the Word Made Flesh.

With irony appropriate for the author of the Fourth Gospel, the lesson appointed for Mass this day is an account of faith in the presence of the empty tomb (Jn 20:2-8), a faith all the more remarkable in the sudden absence of sense-data: the One heard, seen and touched is now more truly present as the object of faith, a faith irreducible to hearing, seeing and touching. As the early second-century martyr Ignatius of Antioch (+ c. 110 A.D.) wrote to the Roman Christians, Christ is all the more present to us now that he is with the Father.

The Holy Innocents offer yet another kind of witness to the Incarnation. Caught in the wake of Herod’s murderous political machinations, these nameless children fall victim to the profound insecurity that marks all earthly power (Mt 2:13-18). Their witness lies precisely in their seeming insignificance: nameless, faceless and obscure, they become the expendable collateral damage in Herod’s maniacal lust for power. The Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours includes the slaughter of the children under Pharaoh (Exodus 1:8-16, 22): They are themselves types or a foreshadowing of the children murdered under Herod, from among whom another Deliverer will escape (this time not from Egypt, but to Egypt).

The second reading in the Office, taken from a catechetical sermon of the fifth-century disciple of St. Augustine, Quodvultdeus of Carthage (+ 454 A.D.), sees these children as martyrs, witnesses to Christ, eloquent precisely in their inability to speak, carrying in their newly-formed and delicate little limbs the palm of victory given to victors. The paradox of the Incarnation is that God reveals and saves not through an exercise of power (and so imitate Pharaoh, Herod and all earthly and diabolical powers), but through humility. Born in the outskirts of an obscure village in a backwater province of the ancient world, the Word Made Flesh has identified himself not with those in power, but with the weak; not with the famous, but with the nameless; not with the wealthy, but with the poor; and there were few members of ancient society more vulnerable, more lacking in power, prestige and resources than children.

St. Thomas Becket (+ 1170 A.D.) is perhaps best known as the subject of T.S. Eliot’s 1935 play “Murder in the Cathedral,” which dramatized the events of Thomas’ friendship with, estrangement from and short-lived reconciliation with Henry II, king of England. The Gospel pericope appointed for the fifth day of the Octave (Lk 2:22-35) is in subtle contrast to the previous day’s passage from Matthew: Whereas the fourth day features the young and voiceless, in the Lucan narrative, an aged and articulate Simeon offers his own witness to the newborn child’s destiny, one combining both promise and conflict.

Here, another aspect of martyria is captured: The opposition those who follow the Word Made Flesh are undoubtedly to encounter and indeed should expect. Becket’s complexity, captured by Eliot, in his struggle to parse his obligations to his king, his Church and his conscience reveals that martyria is not reducible simply to physically violent opposition.

The beginnings of martyrdom are found within the disciple, as one strives to remain a faithful witness to the faithful witness. Within early Christianity, Origen (+ 254 A.D.) and his contemporaries were fond of speaking of the Christian life as an agon, literally a wrestling match, a contest of strength and resolve (intellectually and morally) in following Christ. Becket’s witness, his martyrdom, was but the culmination and consummation of this struggle to remain faithful in the face of internal and external pressures.

The Christmas Octave beautifully demonstrates the organic nature of the Christian mysteries, in that the crèche and the cross can only be understood fully in terms of each other: The Word Made Flesh in Bethlehem is the Word Made Weak on Calvary, revealing the height and depth and breadth of the love who has given Himself so generously to us.

Posted on December 20, 2016, to: