Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Four Martyrs of the Nativity Octave

Why does the Roman Liturgy commemorate martyrs immediately after Christmas Day?
     On the second, third, fourth, and fifth day of the Christmas Octave (that is, eight consecutive days of Christmas mornings), the Roman Liturgy commemorates the following martyrs:  St Stephen the Proto-Martyr (26 December), St John the Apostle and Evangelist (27 December), the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem (28 December), and St Thomas Becket (29 December). 
     These feasts began to be placed in close proximity to Christmas as early as the fourth century, when we know St Stephen was already commemorated the day after Christmas. St Thomas Becket's feast is the most recent, having been established in 1173.  So why do we commemorate these martyrs so soon after the merriment of Christmas morning? —for the very simple reason that Christian merriment is given only to those who will accept the costliness of following Jesus.
     Each of these four martyrs represent four different ‘paradigms’ of martyrdom.  St Stephen the Deacon, proclaimed Jesus and stirred the ire of an resistant audience and was stoned to death (Acts 7:54-60).  Thus St Stephen was a martyr in will and in deed.
     St John the Apostle and Evangelist is the only Apostle who did not die of martyrdom—though he was tortured by the Emperor Domitian reputedly by being boiled in oil—but survived.  Afterward, he was exiled on Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Apoc 1:9).  Since St John was tortured for his faith in Jesus, he is also technically called a confessor, but it stands that he was a martyr in will but not in deed.
     The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem were slaughtered by wicked Herod the Great in his paranoid attempt to retain his throne, as he was fearful that Jesus—the long-foretold King of Israel—would usurp his rule.  In attempt to eliminate the threat of the Christ Child, Herod ordered all male children aged two and under to be killed, hoping to kill baby Jesus as well (Mt 2:16-18).  Thus, the Holy Innocents were martyrs in deed but not in will, since they were too young to understand for Whom they were giving their lives.
     With the Archbishop St Thomas Becket (also known as St Thomas of Canterbury), the Primate of All England, we end the four martyrs’ commemoration the same way we began:  he was a martyr both in deed and in will, with one slight variation:  He died for the liberty of Christ’s Church.  Since the Church is the “fullness of Christ” (Eph 1:23) and is, indeed, the Body of Christ Himself (Rom 12:5; cf Acts 9:4-5), he is rightly recognized as a martyr for Jesus, even if in a roundabout way.
     Again, we have a right to our merriment at the birth of Jesus only if we are willing to give to Him everything.  St Paul wrote, “I appeal to you, therefore…by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1; see also Lk 9:62).  Most of us, like St John, will suffer taunts and ridicule on account of our following of Jesus, perhaps even to the point of temporal loss; a few of us may even lose our lives, either for Christ as did St Stephen, or for the sake of His Church, as did St Thomas Becket.  And daily, thousands of children lose their lives to abortion as did the Holy Innocents.  In a similar way, ISIS has killed hundreds of infant Christians since seizing large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
     Following Jesus is costly, because He wants followers, not fans.  Are you a follower or just a fan?  Will you give to Jesus everything, He Who alone can give us eternal life?

     Nota bene:  On Wednesday, 28 December, Corpus Christi Parish will present Becket, perhaps the best film adaptation of St Thomas Becket's martyrdom.  It will be worthwhile viewing since his circumstances are not too different from our own today here in Canada.  Also, our February convocation of the House of Ephesus will have for its topic “The Grace of Martyrdom.”

Verbum caro hic factum est.

The following homily was preached at the Christmas Eucharistic celebration 'Missa in dies,' the Gospel proclamation being taken from the Prologue of St John's Gospel.
     Perhaps you’re wondering what might be ‘Christmasy’ about the Gospel we’ve just read—or you may be wondering why on earth we read this when there seems to be no mention of the Birth of Jesus.
In case you missed it, the story of the birth of Jesus was given to us in a very tight nutshell:  “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us” [Jn 1:14].  Et Verbum caro factum est—this, along with the Resurrection—is one of the two central Mysteries of the Christian faith:  that the Eternal Word, the Son, in time became a member of the human race.  He Whom the heavens cannot contained was enfleshed in Jesus.  In fact, in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, there is an altar on the spot where the Blessed Virgin Mary is believed to have stood when the Eternal Word was conceived within her; the altar is inscribed with the words Verbum caro hic factum est:  “Here the Word became flesh.”
Hence does the same St John later write:  “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—the Life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you… [1 Jn 1:1-3].  So, it’s not just the birth of Jesus we honour; it is the birth of the Child who is also God; it is the birth of ‘Infinity dwindled to infancy’.
     And for what end did God the Son become the son of Mary?  The opening prayer already told us—“that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”  That is to say, God became humanized in order that humanity may be divinized:  The Incarnation—that is, the enfleshment of God the Son—is exactly the reverse of our destiny, and our destiny, the goal of the Christian life, is nothing less than union with God.  Our first pope, St Peter, wrote of the Christian’s goal to “become partakers of the divine nature” [2 Pt 1:4].
     In a sense, then, the birth of the Christ-Child is also the birth of Christ-children, of Christians, you and me, because in the “one Lord Jesus Christ”—as we will say in the Creed—the infinite gap between humanity and God has been bridged, and what Adam forfeited in Eden is restored to us:   Life.  As Jesus says elsewhere, “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly” [Jn 10:10].
     All of human history has been leading up to the advent of Jesus.  St Paul wrote, “In the fullness of time, God sent His Son, born of a Woman” [Gal 4:4].  We know, of course, that much-beloved verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” [Jn 3:16].  How has the Father given us the Son?  Ultimately, on the Cross, where His Body, was crucified; towards this, the Father gave us the Son through the Virgin Mary who furnished the Son with our flesh and blood to be crucified; towards this, the Father gave us the Son by way of anticipation when the worlds were created—including you and me—so as to have an audience and a stage where the drama of the Incarnate Word would take place.  Why?  The Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, also asked this question, “Whether it was necessary for the restoration of the human race that the Word of God should become incarnate?”—he answered that it was necessary “with regard to [our] full participation [in] the Divinity, which is the true bliss of man and end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ's humanity; for Augustine says in a sermon: ‘God was made man, that man might be made God.'"
     Jesus has been given to us, and He is still being given to us; shall we return this gracious favour by giving ourselves to Him, too?  We give ourselves to Jesus in faith, “Jesus, I believe in You.”  Faith, in a poetic sense, is the opposite, but not the contrary, of the Incarnation, since it enables us “to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”
     Those words will be repeated when I prepare this altar for the Holy Sacrifice; when I prepare the chalice, water will be poured into the wine and I will say, “By this mingling of water and wine, may we share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”  And, just as the Holy Spirit caused the Virgin to conceive the Incarnate Word within her, so too will the Holy Spirit bring about the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus on this altar, this same Jesus of Whom we sing in our carols, this very same Jesus we will receive in Holy Communion:
     “Clothed in flesh the Godhead see / hail th’ Incarnate Deity”;
     “Jesus to thee be all glory given; Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing”;
     “O that birth forever blessed, when the Virgin, full of grace / By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race / And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!”
Indeed, on this Altar, again, Verbum caro hic factum est.  By sharing in the Sacred Humanity of Jesus, may we also share in His Sublime Divinity.