The Christmas decorations came out early this year. Immediately after Halloween, they began popping up in neighborhoods and strip malls. The justification was 2020—in a year of manifold chaos and distemper defined by the Coronavirus, racial strife, and contentious elections, putting up the decorations early was a cathartic way to bring out those good “Christmas vibes” of peace, love, and joy. But the sappy, saccharine celebration of Christmas can obscure an important, if unnerving fact: the liturgical season of Christmas is demonstrably violent.
Sure, Christmas Day celebrates the innocence of the Christ child, the love of God manifested in the Incarnation, and the peace brought by Immanuel. But consider three of the feast days that directly follow it: Saint Stephen (December 26), the Holy Innocents (December 28), and Saint Thomas Becket (December 29), all of which celebrate those who suffered for the sake of the Prince of Peace. These feast days, as well as that of the persecuted and exiled Saint John the Apostle (December 27), are a reminder that the message of Christmas stands in dramatic tension with the world.
Saint Stephen was the first martyr for the Christian faith. A deacon of the Apostolic Church in Jerusalem in the months following Christ’s resurrection, Scripture tells us he was “full of faith…grace and power.” In Acts six and seven, we read that members of the city’s synagogue found his virtue and spiritual authority confounding and frustrating, so they conspired to murder him. Synagogue officials “stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and set up false witnesses.”
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Stephen defiantly rebuked his accusers, saying “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised…you always resist the Holy Spirit.” He reminded them of their ancestors’ complicity in persecuting the prophets, culminating in the betrayal and murder of Christ, “the Righteous One.” Incensed by these words, a mob of Stephen’s opponents carried him outside the city and stoned him to death. Stephen, following in his Savior’s footsteps, died praying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
In Stephen’s story, we see that Christmas is not only about charity and kindness, but also speaking Christ’s truth to those who need to hear it. Stephen thought little of whom he might offend with his rhetorical assault on the sins of his persecutors. Firmly fixed on God’s glory and the Gospel, he seemed little concerned with “pastoral sensitivities.” This approach ends less like a cute Hallmark holiday movie, and more like a dark, uncomfortable Ingmar Bergman film in which the protagonist unceremoniously perishes.
Perhaps even more disturbing (at least for those outside the Church) is the feast of the Holy Innocents, which honors those children who were murdered to fulfill an edict by King Herod of Judea. Herod, an Edomite by lineage, knew that his rule over the Jewish people was precarious. Moreover, Biblical prophecies spoke of a ruler of Israel who would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah (Micah 5:2), a star what would “come forth out of Jacob” to “crush the foreheads of Moab” and dispossess Edom (Numbers 24:17-19).
Herod welcomes an audience with the Three Magi from the East, who alert him to the possibility that these prophecies will soon be fulfilled. In response, Herod, whose brutality knew no limits (he had executed several members of his own family), orders all children up to the age of two living in the vicinity of Bethlehem to be killed. Though the Holy Family escapes this pogrom via an angelic warning to Joseph to flee to Egypt, about twenty—thirty children, the “Holy Innocents,” are massacred by Herod’s order.
Thus, in his very first days, the Christ Child witnesses an example of how political expediency, when stripped of ethics, leads to violent brutality. The “Holy Innocents,” whom the Church calls proto-martyrs because they died on account of Christ, show us that a society free from God is capable of murdering even its most innocent members. This is not exactly the story we like to reflect on while drinking eggnog and watching Bowl games.
Finally, there is Saint Thomas Becket, a politician-turned-cleric during the reign of Henry II in mid-twelfth century England. A close companion of Henry during his childhood, Becket was nominated and confirmed as Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ecclesial office in the realm. Henry’s presumption was that Becket would prioritize the king’s political ambitions over those of the Church.
Yet, upon his assumption of the archbishop’s mantle, Becket embraced asceticism and prayer. Rather than play along with Henry’s political goals, he frustrated the king’s attempts to dominate the Church, and even had to flee to the continent for a few years to escape the Crown’s wrath. In 1170 Becket returned, but was soon sparring with Henry once more. Four of the king’s knights interpreted Henry’s comments as a command to kill Becket. They traveled to Canterbury, confronted the archbishop, and hacked him to death before the altar.
Becket stands as a testament to the independence of the Church in the face of anti-ecclesial political attacks. He also reminds us that our devotion to Christ may undermine our closest relationships. Confronted with the option to serve either Christ or his friend the king, Becket chose his eternal Lord, and paid with his life.
For an increasingly secular culture, Christmas is interpreted as a celebration of peace, love, and innocence. Our popular Christmas movies, our music, and our memorabilia all reflect this. Certainly, there is some truth to it. We do celebrate the birth of Christ, the innocent Prince of Peace whose incarnation embodies God’s love for humanity. Yet the Nativity is perhaps just as much a story of suffering, poverty, and persecution.
Jesus was born in poverty, away from home, and surrounded by barnyard animals and strangers. Though He was innocent, and sent for the sake of peace and love, men aimed to murder Him from His first breath. The feast days of Saint Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and Saint Thomas Becket remind us that however much we seek to welcome Christ into our lives, we retain a prideful self-reliance that resists His arrival. Saint Stephen reminds us that Christianity offers the world not only grace, but also a truth that reproves it for its sins. The Holy Innocents remind us that we may resort to sin and violence if we perceive our personal wills are endangered. Saint Thomas Becket reminds us that our hard-earned religious freedoms remain under constant threat from external forces.
Do not let Christmas, even in the tumultuous 2020, be an excuse for escapism. Yes, the Christ Child, Saint Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and Saint Thomas Becket all represent peace, love and innocence. They also represent the deep tension between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of men. The story of a poor husband and wife seeking shelter on a dark, lonely night in Bethlehem, while their king plans their child’s murder, exists uneasily between two realities: man’s yearning for redemption, and his arrogant, selfish disdain for God.
To get Christmas right, we must remember that Christ did not come to Earth in a feel-good Hallmark movie, but in a heart-wrenching drama. The Light of Christ illuminates the darkness, rather than ignoring it. The gift of love manifested in the Child Jesus came at great cost. And because of this cost, much is now demanded of us.
[Image: Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens]