Gentle Reader, I hope Santa was good to you and, even more, that you were good to others in this season. As Robert Wilken reminded us Friday, we have time yet before the traditional twelve days come to an end. So it isn’t too late to spread Christmas cheer. But Christmas cheer, which is a bit different than other kinds.
In the liturgical calendar, there’s lots of bloodiness in the period immediately after Christmas, beginning with December 26, the Feast of St. Stephen, today’s Holy Innocents, and tomorrow’s Thomas Becket, martyrs all. Christ child brought unexpected blessings into the world; the world returned the favor by slaughtering Him and many of his followers, and continues to do so. The suffering and the joy are alike part of the same definitive revelation and redemption, which prevents Christians from slipping into mere sentimentality and happy talk, like some politician seeking votes.
All this tells us much about Christian hope and joy. St. Stephen is usually described as the first martyr, because, in Acts 6 and 7, right after Christ’s death he’s accused by the Sanhedrin of blasphemy. After his long confession of how the whole Jewish history pointed the way towards Jesus the Messiah, he’s stoned to death while Saul (later Paul) watches the cloaks: “But he, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Not a bad start for Christian martyrdom.
Except it was not the beginning. Today’s feast, Holy Innocents, commemorates Herod’s slaughter decades earlier of “all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.” (Matthew 2) The Magi, learned and pious men, unwittingly touched off martyrdoms at Jesus’ birth. But how are these babies, unaware of Jesus or Herod, martyrs? They did not meet the usual criteria for martyrs. Charles Péguy says in his “Mystery of the Holy Innocents,” God wanted them martyrs by such means anyway:
But the Church goes further, the Church goesbeyond, the Church outstrips the Apostle,No longer does the Church only say that they arethe firstfruits to God or to the Lamb,But the Church invokes them and calls themflowers of the MartyrsLiterally meaning by those words that the othermartyrs are the fruits, whereas these, amongmartyrs, are the flowers themselves.Salvete FLORES MartyrumHail, FLOWERS of Martyrs.
I wrote a book on the twentieth-century martyrs for the year 2000 that deals with what John Paul II sometimes called New Martyrs, figures like Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe who also don’t quite fall into usual categories – she is called Martyr to Truth, he Martyr to Charity. Some people, even some Catholics, regard them as merely John Paul’s attempt to co-opt modern events like the Holocaust (both died at Auschwitz). But JPII was following a very ancient tradition going back to the Holy Innocents and applying it to modern circumstances.
Thomas Becket, of course, is someone we can understand more readily, even if his turn to heroic virtue after a comfortable life at court is something few of us, after our own relatively well-off lives, could hope to imitate. But then again, why not? A surprising things about martyrs is that their heroism and sanctity often did not show itself until they were put to the test. If that hour comes, categories like rich and poor do not matter. The Marxists may identify virtue with social class, but a Christian knows that a poor man may be a miser and a coward and a rich one generous and brave – as well as the reverse.
All this has gotten me to thinking about what exactly the gift of the Christ Child was. Lots of the old Christian writers pointed to the phrase in Daniel about the “man of desires,” not for what everyone desires, but for much more, the same notion that lies behind the hymn “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring.” Yet Jesus is not a gift in the normal sense, a thing we either have or have not.
There are many things which it is a gift not to have (if we were not in the Christmas season and taking a break from controversy, I’d point to the Catholic Hospital Association and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, both of which gave cover to pro-abortion forces last week). For a Christian, things may be an impediment (old Latin students know that impedimentum means baggage, what we drag around with us). Carefully scrutinized, the Christ Child comes with quite a minimum of baggage and perhaps can only be truly seen if we go to him bearing gifts like the Magi or emptyhanded like the shepherds.
I often reread Eve, another of Péguy’s poems around this time of the year, parts of it (It’s almost 20,000 lines). The last 80 pages describe all the things we will not need on our deathbeds. One of the stanzas I myself find particularly helpful goes:
It will not be an Aristotelian who slipsUnder those thick laurel trees,And it will not be his thin lipsThat will give us the kiss of peace.Quite other lips, a bit more CatholicWill plant the kiss on our cheeksA hand less blind, more apostolic,Will find us beneath the broad beech.
Péguy knew as well as anyone the value of Aristotle’s clear mind, but he had a clear enough mind himself to know that at the very end, which Christmas reminds us is also a beginning, we’ll need something quite different even than “intellectual gifts.”
These are good days, twelve fine Christmas days, to live intensely with: birth and death, power and weakness, light and dark, thought and love.
Let the heathen shop.