Remember the Martyrs

Lord of life, protect all who are persecuted for Your name.
- Pope Francis, Urbi et Orbi Christmas message, Dec. 25, 2013

By Chris Sparks (Dec. 30, 2013)

Merry Christmas! The world may think that Christmas ended at midnight on Christmas Day, but the Church knows better. We celebrate an eight-day Christmas octave, stretching from Dec. 25 to Jan. 1, which is the Solemnity of the Mother of God. In those days between the two great feasts are a number of other special feast days, including three feasts of martyrs:

• the feast of St. Stephen the Deacon on Dec. 26, who was martyred at the instigation of Saul before he converted and became St. Paul;
• the feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28, commemorating those who died when Herod sent his soldiers to slaughter the boys age 2 and under in Bethlehem for fear of the Messiah; and
• the feast of St. Thomas Becket on Dec. 29, Bishop and martyr, who was killed for his opposition to the English government's interference in the affairs of the Catholic Church in England.

That seems awfully bloody, awfully dark for the Christmas season. What gives?

The reality of Christmas, that's what.

Jesus's whole life is touched by the shadow of the looming cross. He is given flesh and blood by His mother Mary so that He can give them back on the cross, take them up again in the Resurrection, and complete the process of placing human nature in eternal communion with the Trinity's own life and love at His Ascension. Jesus's whole life is lived as one great gift, one great self-offering out of love for God and humanity, and that self-offering is martyrdom for the life of the world.

That's the Christian life, as Jesus makes abundantly clear when He tells us to take up our crosses and follow Him (see Mt 16:24-26). And the model Christians have been the martyrs from the very first days of Christianity, starting with Jesus Himself, and followed shortly by the martyrdom of St. Stephen, one of the first deacons in the Church. His trial, testimony, and death by stoning are all recounted in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 6-7).

But even before Jesus suffered His Passion, the Holy Innocents lost their lives for Christ, those sons of Bethlehem who were two and under, who might have been the Promised of Ages in the eyes of a terrified Herod. They are honored because they died for Jesus, though all unknowing.

It is appropriate, then, that we take time during this octave to raise our eyes from our own local festivities and take note of the severe persecutions facing our fellow Christians all around the globe.

Noted journalist and Vatican expert John Allen summed up the situation bluntly in a piece for The Spectator on Oct. 5, 2013.

"Consider three points about the landscape of anti-Christian persecution today, as shocking as they are generally unknown," Allen said. "According to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular observatory based in Frankfurt, Germany, 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. Statistically speaking, that makes Christians by far the most persecuted religious body on the planet.

"According to the Pew Forum, between 2006 and 2010 Christians faced some form of discrimination, either de jure or de facto, in a staggering total of 139 nations, which is almost three-quarters of all the countries on earth," he continued. "According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed in what the centre calls a 'situation of witness' each year for the past decade. That works out to 11 Christians killed somewhere in the world every hour, seven days a week and 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith.

"In effect, the world is witnessing the rise of an entire new generation of Christian martyrs," concluded Allen, author of The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution. "The carnage is occurring on such a vast scale that it represents not only the most dramatic Christian story of our time, but arguably the premier human rights challenge of this era as well."

From the imprisoned believers in North Korea to the persecuted Christians of the Middle East and many, many places in between, people are suffering and dying for Jesus every day. Do we remember? Do we pray for them? Do we send what help we can through organizations such as the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need? Do we tell their stories in our churches, our homes, and our communities?

Let us heed the call given by Pope Francis earlier this year:

When I hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, am I indifferent or is it as if one of my family were suffering? When I think or hear it said that many Christians are persecuted and give their lives for their faith, does this touch my heart or not? Am I open to a brother or sister of the family who is giving his or her life for Jesus Christ? Do we pray for each other? I have a question for you, but don't answer out loud, only in your heart. How many of you pray for Christians who are being persecuted? How many? Everyone respond in you heart. Do I pray for my brother, for my sister who is in difficulty because they confess and defend their faith? It is important to look beyond our own boundaries, to feel that we are Church, one family in God!

You might also like...

On Sunday, Jan. 2, we celebrate the Epiphany of Our Lord. Come, let us adore the newborn King as the Magi did.

Dec. 7 is the feast day of St. Ambrose. He helped convert St. Augustine and encouraged St. Monica in her many years of prayer for her unrepentant son.

If costuming your children as witches, ghosts, or demons concerns you, fine — exorcise the demons from the wardrobe!