Why is the Solemnity of Christmas followed immediately by the feast of St. Stephen, the proto-martyr; then by the feast of St. John the Evangelist, who suffered the living martyrdom of exile; then by the feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs; and then by the commemoration of St. Thomas Becket, martyr? Because martyrdom is part of the logic – the “theo-logic,” if you will – of Christmas.
The angelic announcement of Christmas rightly promises “peace among men with whom [God] is pleased” (Luke 2.14). But old Simeon, who lived in the borderland between the Old and New Covenants, knew that something else, something foreboding, was afoot in the birth of the Holy Child: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)…” The “salvation…prepared in the presence of all peoples” would come through a sign of contradiction that lacerated a maternal heart (Luke 2.34-35, 30).
With Christmas, the contest between God and all that rejects God is joined in history. For the world’s salvation, the Son of God, the eternal Word, takes flesh, is born of the Virgin Mary– and is immediately thrust into the lists against the principalities and powers: in the first instance, Herod, who slaughters children to protect a shaky throne. But Herod’s wickedness is just the beginning. For this Holy Child will become the man of sorrows, the embodiment of the suffering servant, shattered and almost unrecognizable, “without beauty, without majesty” (Isaiah 53.2). That is what was required to complete the work of salvation for which this Child was born. Christmas contains Good Friday – and, to be sure, Easter. But Good Friday first.
The Christmastide martyrs are a helpful reminder of this deep truth of Christian faith. As I’ve written in this space before, Christianity is not man’s search for God; Christianity is God’s search for us – in history, where we live – and our learning to take the same path through that history that God takes. That path leads to Calvary. “Calvary” can be lived in many ways, of course: St. John’s living martyrdom was different than the martyrdoms of St. Stephen and St. Thomas Becket, as theirs was different from the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (who, if the Gospel account is taken literally, would likely have had no idea what was about to happen, unlike Deacon Stephen or Archbishop Thomas). Still, the cave at Bethlehem opens, symbolically, to the north, where the hill of Calvary waits.
Over the past twenty-six years, Pope John Paul II has lifted up the witness of hundreds of modern martyrs, reminding us that martyrdom is not just something from the past, but is very much part of the living experience of the Church. This past August, at his Angelus address on the day the Church commemorates the martyrdom of John the Baptist, the Holy Father noted that, while “there may be relatively few who are called to make the supreme sacrifice,” all of us “must be ready to give consistent witness each day, even at the cost of suffering and serious sacrifices.” Our commitment, the Pope continued, must be “heroic,” if we are “not to give in, even in daily life, to the difficulties that urge us to compromise.”
So it’s not inappropriate – in fact, it’s necessary – to remember our modern martyrs during this Christmas season. Throughout the world, thirty-one Catholics died for the faith in 2000; thirty-three more made the ultimate sacrifice in 2001, as did twenty-five in 2002 and fourteen in 2003, according to a Vatican agency that monitors these things. (The count is almost certainly higher, given the likelihood of numerous martyrdoms in North Korea, from which information cannot be obtained.) Some were bishops and priests, others were religious sisters, lay catechists, ordinary members of the faithful. Some died because of religious hatred, primarily Islamic but also Hindu; others were killed by drug lords or thuggish soldiers.
Whatever their state in life or the circumstances of their deaths, their witness reminds us that the Child of Bethlehem and the crucified Jesus are one and the same savior.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.