One of the more interesting facets of the liturgical year is that two of the first four days of the Christmas Octave are dedicated to martyrs: December 26th is the feast of St. Stephen (although it was bumped for the feast of the Holy Family this year) and today, December 28th, we remember the Holy Innocents. At a time when most people are thinking festive and jolly thoughts, the Church focuses our attention on gruesome deaths. Why is that?
There is one event that dominates the life of Jesus: Golgotha. The Cross casts a shadow upon every aspect of Christ’s life, from his conception to his Ascension and Second Coming. When Simeon first encountered the baby Jesus, he proclaimed, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35) – not exactly something that would typically be said at a baptism or baby shower, is it?
Joseph Pieper defined an “encounter” as “something which turns up within my mental horizon in such a manner as to stand in my way, as ‘to resist’.” This is what happens in our encounter with Jesus Christ: he “stands in our way”, especially his death, and resists our fallen desires. Even when we encounter him as a little babe in the manger of Bethlehem, the Cross looms over us, resisting our efforts to relegate Christmas to a nice, comfortable story. The brutal deaths of Stephen and the Holy Innocents remind us during this Christmastime that we must encounter Christ’s Cross and take it up in our own lives.
But what also must be remembered is the other color of Christmas: green. In the merciful plan of God, His Son’s bloody death leads to everlasting life. St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents were drenched in red, but that led them to the never-ending green of eternal life. We too, when we embrace our crosses, can enter into that life with all the martyrs and saints.
Holy Innocents, pray for us!