The time between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, or the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, is one of great festivity, both secular and religious. Strangely, the liturgical calendar has a distinctly non-celebratory list of feasts that inhabit the days from December 26th to the 31st. In that short span of time, three of the five days on the liturgical calendar commemorate martyrdom.
On the day after Christmas the first martyr, St. Stephen, is remembered, and then on the 28th the Church recalls the Holy Innocents, those children sacrificed to the bloodlust of King Herod. Finally, on the 29th, St. Thomas Becket, killed in his cathedral at Canterbury by knights of the King of England, rounds out this surprisingly bloody week.
These feasts remind us that even with the birth of the Savior, there is still sin, especially violent sin, that prowls this world looking to show that might makes right. Whether one is earnest and a bit naive like Stephen or worldly and well-connected like Becket or even sinless and vulnerable like the Holy Innocents, there is no way to avoid the violence of the powerful once their fury is unleashed.
In between the commemorations of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents is the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. Of the Twelve, only John avoided a bloody death, dying sometime around the year A.D. 100 in Ephesus. Prior to his death he was exiled on the Greek island of Patmos, where he had the vision that became the Book of Revelation, and legend has it that this exile came after a failed attempt to boil the saint in oil - he was unharmed and this miracle brought many into the Church.
St. John is not only credited with writing a gospel, three letters and the Apocalypse, but of spreading the Good News to such important early Christians as St. Polycarp and St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was also the caretaker of the Blessed Mother until the end of her earthly life, fulfilling the role given to him by Jesus from the Cross.
In all of these works, maybe it is St. John, rather than the martyrs, with whom we can best connect. Most Christians, even if they are devout and openly proclaim the Gospel, do not meet a bloody end. This does not preclude suffering - those who walk with Jesus must carry their cross and will get splinters - but a violent death is not likely.
The Church has always made the distinction between two different types of witnesses - witness being the meaning of the Greek word martyr. Some, like St. Stephen, suffer what is known as red martyrdom, and others, like St. John, are known as white martyrs. Both suffer, but only red martyrs pay the ultimate price for their Faith. White martyrdom, a calling that beckons almost all Christians, still involves the offering of one’s life to Christ, but does not include a violent death.
White martyrdom is directly related to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of Me.”
White martyrdom is not deadly, but it does involve suffering in ways that can be quite difficult. No one likes to be insulted, persecuted, and slandered, and people tend to avoid them if at all possible. But those are the splinters of the cross that are the necessary result of carrying it.
As a general rule, the Christmas season isn’t one that lends itself to discussions of martyrdom, red or white, but the Church, in Her wisdom, directs our attention to the necessity of being a witness to and not just an admirer of that Child in the manger. And as people look ahead to the new year and various resolutions, maybe resolving to live the Beatitudes would be more meaningful than the usual “lose weight” or “get organized”.
And since there is no avoiding the topic, it might help our focus if we remember what Jesus said right after He warned of the difficulties of being a witness: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” Not a lot of New Year’s resolutions can make that boast. Happy New Year!