Ah, the first Sunday after Christmas. Around the church, at least, this is usually a fairly peaceful weekend, especially coming after the hustle and bustle of the holiday. I, like most, am overfed and feel the simultaneous needs of a nap and a few day-long trips to the gym.
Now, it’s well known that the “Christmas Season” is not really the time leading up to Christmas, but rather the twelve days of Christmas, Christmastide, which ends with the Vigil of the Epiphany on January 5th. Epiphany is on a Sunday this year, which makes things easier on the clergy, and if you’ll bear with the advertisement, we’ll have the blessing chalk, gold, frankincense, and myrrh at every service next weekend so no one misses out. So that’s Christmastide.
Less known is that within Christmastide, we have the Witness Days. Anyone ever heard of that?
“On the six days between Christmas Day its Octave on 1 January, we have five commemorations of persons who have in various ways, by martyrdom or otherwise, born witness to the truth of the Christian faith. (Note that the word Martyros in pre-Christian Greek means simply “witness,” and that it is not always clear whether Christian uses of it ought to be translated as “witness” or in the narrow technical sense as “martyr”, that is, someone who has explicitly chosen to die sooner than to deny Christ as Lord. Anyway…
“On December 26th, we remember St. Stephen, first member of the early Christian church to be put to death for his faith — see Acts 6,7. He was “a martyr in will and deed.”
“On December 27th, we remember St. John the Evangelist, one of the Twelve Apostles. It is commonly believed that, although he was imprisoned and beaten for his adherence to Christ, he lived to old age and died a natural death. He was “a martyr in will but not in deed,” meaning that he was willing to lay down his life for his Lord, but was not called on to do so (though I am sure he wished he had – remember that he was once boiled in oil but didn’t die).
“On December 28, we remember the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem who were slaughtered by command of King Herod lest one of them prove a danger to his throne. They were “martyrs in deed, though not in will,” and their deaths are a disquieting reminder that suffering on behalf of a good cause is not always restricted to those who have a choice in the matter.
“The witnesses commemorated on these first three days are all from New Testament times. On the two days following, we commemorate witnesses from a later period in Christian history. Taking them in reverse order of days:
“(though not a martyr), On December 31 we commemorate Sylvester, bishop of Rome from 313 to 335 — that is, roughly from the Edict of Toleration issued by the Emperor Constantine to the death of the said Emperor, and thus the first bishop of Rome in the days after Christianity ceased to be an illegal and persecuted religion. With his term of office, we enter an era when to become a Christian is no longer to place oneself in automatic danger of being put to death by the government. However…
“On December 29, we remember Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain in his own cathedral in 1170, for his defiance of King Henry II. (King Henry claimed that a cleric accused of an ordinary crime ought to be tried in the King’s Courts like any layman. Thomas, who was Henry’s Chancellor and his close friend, vigorously upheld the king’s position. However, when he was made Archbishop of Canterbury with the king’s support, he reversed himself completely and upheld the right of clergy to be tried only in Church courts, which could not inflict capital punishment. When Henry uttered, famously, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” four of his knights took that as an order and killed him) The death of Thomas reminds us that a Christian, even when safe from pagans, can be in danger from his fellow-Christians.”
Christmastide is dominated by the celebration of these martyrs, these witnesses to the faith. They’re heroes not necessarily because they died for the faith, but because they had, in one way or another, met Jesus, returned His love, and counted their relationship with Him to be more valuable then even their lives. As we work our was through Christmas and into the new year, how will we witness to our relationship with Jesus? How will we be heroes and heroines in the Faith?