The Christmas Martyrs
A consideration of the collects for the four feasts of the historic English Church that immediately follow the Nativity of our Lord.
The four great feasts of the “Christmas Martyrs” celebrated amidst mirth and reflection due to their location in the calendar, have much to teach us. They provide a unique contrast to the expectation of Advent and the joy of the twelve-day Christmas feast. Each collect and feast contains a particular mystagogy concerning the Faith. Accompanied by an assist from Shakespeare and Dickens, I hope to present a brief reflection of their meaning.
In the post-reformation Prayer Book (BCP) tradition, three feasts follow The Nativity of our Lord. The collects used below are from the 1928 US BCP, while St. Thomas Becket’s collect derives from the Anglican Missal of published by the Anglican Parishes Association (1988)
St. Stephen’s Day, December 26
GRANT, O Lord, that, in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those who suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.
The classic BCP collect states that we should give testimony amid suffering. The power to do so stems from our vision of Christ in Heaven. As we behold the glory of the King who once suffered for us at the right hand of the Father, we, now filled with the Holy Spirit, then, and only then can we bless our persecutors. St. Stephen represents all Christians who continue to suffer and die to this day, especially those new to the Faith who witness to the Advent of the King. Stephen’s greatest witness is his intercessory prayer. Stephen behold our Lord in intercessory prayer and mediates that ongoing ministry to his killers. As our Lord prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Stephen acknowledges their meditated malice and asks that the sin, be not held to heir account.
And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. (Acts 7:60)
St. Stephen fulfills Christ’s prophecy that his disciples will do greater works than He will. Stephen forgives those who knew full well what they were doing. There is no ignorance in their crime. But it is the Martyr’s prayer of un-requested and unmitigated forgiveness that is his crowning achievement and effects deeply another conspicuous man, Saul of Tarsus. Stephen’s forgiveness is so powerful it echoes through the years of St. Paul’s life. Luke makes an intentional connection between the martyrdom of Stephen and the beginning of the ministry of Paul. Paul’s story and his conversion begin at the Forgiveness of Stephen. Paul was obviously affected, he mentions Stephen by name years later. It is he who obviously passed the details to Luke the careful researcher. (Acts 22:20)
The collect reminds us to find the vision of our first love and passion for Christ and live it. Stephen gives his young life and future into the hands of the Son of God and makes a sacrifice now joined to the sacrifice of Christ.
St. John the Apostle, December 27
MERCIFUL Lord, we beseech thee to cast thy bright beams of light upon thy Church, that it, being instructed by the doctrine of thy blessed Apostle and Evangelist Saint John, may so walk in the light of thy truth, that it may at length attain to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
John the Evangelist and Apostle exemplifies those who continue to the end through many sufferings. The collect prays that we may “at length” attain to everlasting life. It directs us to be mindful of this Apostle’s doctrine, which casts the bright beams of light upon us. While Stephen dies young, John persists to the end of his days and has been accorded the title of martyr. This collect and feast join us to the following liturgical season, Epiphany. John’s Gospel is the Gospel of the Epiphany, the season’s readings all stress light shining in the night. We know most creatures have a natural love, attraction, and movement toward light. The feast of the beloved John and his life and Gospel move us to Christ that we to may recline with Him at table.
This collect’s use of light vs. darkness in this season has effects seen in Charles Dickens. Scrooge, he informs us, likes the dark because it is cheap. The old money lender shuffles, wrapped in this drained, anemic dusk as he heads home on Christmas Eve.
“Half a dozen gas-lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark with Scrooge’s dip. Up Scrooge went, not caring a button for that. Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.”
Scrooge the Tight-fisted loves the dark because it does not cost him anything. If we are faithful, like John, and seek and proclaim the light it will cost us much in this world. A “martyrdom” for most remains a small daily struggle of sacrifice and self-denial. The collect again shows us how to persevere, by attending habitually to the Apostles’ doctrine and walking continually in the light. Where St. Stephen is a martyr that dies in the springtime of his life, St. John stands for those who maintain till the end through many hard and sacrificial years.
The Holy Innocents, December 28
O ALMIGHTY God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths: Mortify and kill all vices in us, and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives, and constancy of our faith even unto death, we may glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Holy Innocents are those who are cut off in their gentle genesis. Their collect asks that Almighty God may mortify and kill all vices in us, in effect, to make us like innocent children to inherit the Kingdom of God. What greater vice is there than the ongoing slaughter of the innocents? Infanticide groans to us from long halls of ancient times. Those innocents died for the Christ Child, who will one day die for them, suffering the outrage of a fearful ruler and his mindless murder of the guiltless. Abortion and Infanticide, both plagues of the antique world, are still in strength and growing as the new creation of the Kingdom is under the assault of this old crime. Again, Dickens is fairly invoked concerning this issue in the mouth of the Spirit of Christmas Present.
“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.’
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit. Say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then. ‘If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’ ”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief. “Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God. To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.”
Scrooge bent before the Ghost’s rebuke, and trembling cast his eyes upon the ground.
The length and breadth of sacred scripture adjure us to care for the Widow, Orphan, and helpless. After long centuries, are we worse than Herod? We have in our day fulfilled the charge of Shakespeare in Hamlet (3.2, 12-14) “I would have such a fellow whipped… It out-Herods Herod. Pray you, avoid it.” What Herod trespassed in greed, wrath, and momentary passion, we now organize, industrialize, and institutionalize our killing of the innocent, both young and old.
While the collect directs us properly to be as children in the Kingdom, the fallen world would again misuse the ideal of spiritual innocence in this festive season of the Christ Child. The voices in this Modern Age that attempt to de-emphasize and kill Christmas (as with other outward influences of Christianity in culture) tell us that Christmas is the holiday “for the children”. Varied voices use this very phrase. When Maureen O’Hara as Doris Miller, the serious businesswoman in Miracle on 34th Street, uttered the phrase in the eponymous movie, it was an old saw. The secular world would have us believe Christmas is only for Children and for their indulgence. These same progressive voices now want us to have fewer children running around to celebrate this feast that supposedly is just for them.
Dickens knew the Feast and Season of Christmas was for everyone, especially modern adults weighed down in an ever efficient and industrializing landscape. Dickens’ celebration of Christmas made the old, dewy young again, it created innocence amid suffering, an innocence like Tiny Tim’s. From the introduction:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.
Later Dickens says, “I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.”
Scrooge vows to live the Spirit (innocence of Christmas all year through)
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
Christmas is a time to nurture the Innocent, young and old and the very innocence in our own Soul. We must like a reborn Scrooge to make proper amends in our future charity for past oversights.
St. Thomas of Canterbury, December 29
O God, who for thy Church’s sake didst suffer thy Bishop Saint Thomas gloriously to be slain by the sword of wicked men: grant we beseech thee; that all they who call upon him for succor may be profited by the obtaining of all that they desire. Through & c.
Thomas of Canterbury’s martyrdom stands for those who are willing to lose all; wealth, friends, family, the esteem of countrymen for the Gospel’s sake. St. Thomas was wealthy, influential, well titled, loved, and close to the king. Thomas found a greater honor then serving his earthly desires and those of Henry II. He defended the honor of God.
Sadly, Thomas of Canterbury suffered a second martyrdom as his memorial was destroyed by Henry VIII. The shrine stood until it was crushed in 1538, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on direct orders from King Henry VIII. The king also destroyed Becket’s bones and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated from records.
The Martyrs of the Christmas Octave remind us that the feast is for all. The joy of the feast is for more than the pleasure of our senses. It is about the Kingdom of God and our ultimate destiny of Life Eternal with the Blessed Trinity. Bl. Bishop Sheen reminds us, “[E]very other person who ever came into this world came into it to live. He came into it to die.” And by Christ’s birth and death, he destroyed Death itself, imparting life to hose in the tombs.