Why Do We Celebrate Martyrs at Christmas?

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

t’s the season of joy and the time of good tidings, so why is the liturgical calendar for Christmas packed with so many martyrdoms?

Take a look at the calendar. The day after Christmas is the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, who was stoned to death. The following Monday marks the Holy Innocents, those babies of Bethlehem killed by the caprice of a tyrant. Next is St. Thomas Becket, whose head was sliced open by a sword near the altar of a cathedral in medieval England.

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But the theme of martyrdom carries through even in other feasts for saints who technically are not martyrs. St. John the Apostle, who is celebrated the Sunday after Christmas, is considered a martyr by will. St. John Kanty, whose day is before Christmas Eve, longed to be a martyr.

It didn’t necessarily have to be this way. There is no historical date for the murder of St. Stephen. The same goes for the Holy Innocents. Becket’s feast day is on the anniversary of his death but the Church could have picked another date on which to remember him.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, scheduling these feast days around Christmas is intentional:

These dates have nothing to do with the chronological order of the event; the feast is kept within the octave of Christmas because the Holy Innocents gave their life for the newborn Savior. Stephen the first martyr (martyr by will, love, and blood), John, the Disciple of Love (martyr by will and love), and these first flowers of the Church (martyrs by blood alone) accompany the Holy Child Jesus entering this world on Christmas day.

But why Christmas? Why not the end of Lent? Certainly one could make a compelling argument for celebrating St. Stephen and St. John close to the day of the Lord’s Passion to which they were united, the one by blood, the other by will. So what is the Church trying to tell us?

Read on…

Why Do We Celebrate Martyrs at Christmas?

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