Feast of the Holy Innocents: In Memory of All Innocent Victims of Injustice and Violence

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Today, December 28, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, all those young boys in and around Bethlehem, two and under, whom Herod had massacred. We do not know their number or their names, but the Church lists them as among her martyrs. Some have disputed that they should not be called martyrs since they did not submit freely for the sake of Christ but were “merely victims” of Herod. Nevertheless, the Church has long numbered them in her ranks of martyrs. St. Augustine says of them:

And while [Herod] thus persecutes Christ, he furnished an army (or martyrs) clothed in white robes of the same age as the Lord…. O blessed infants! He only will doubt of your crown in this your passion for Christ, who doubts that the baptism of Christ has a benefit for infants. He who at His birth had Angels to proclaim Him, the heavens to testify, and Magi to worship Him, could surely have prevented that these should not have died for Him, had He not known that they died not in that death, but rather lived in higher bliss. Far be the thought, that Christ who came to set men free, did nothing to reward those who died in His behalf, when hanging on the cross He prayed for those who put Him to death. (Serm. 373, 3, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

Our times is not much different during the time of Jesus’ birth. As we spent the past few days in Christmas revelries, many innocent people continue to be killed due to so many conflicts and wars that persists even in this information age. Not just wars, innocent people continue to die of hunger, common illnesses, extra-judicial killings and massive poverty that afflict more than a half billion people on the planet. We also know well that many innocent babies are killed through abortion.

While we are overjoyed as Christians at the coming of Christ, many people do not share our sense of elation. On Christmas Day, eleven Christian hostages were killed by Islamic State terrorists in Nigeria. The Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) claim they killed the captives to avenge for the killing of their leaders Abu bakr al-Baghdadi and Abul-Hasan Al-Muhajir in Iraq and Syria.

The feast of the Holy Innocents in the middle of the Christmas season reminds us that the real Christmas is still far from reality in our world today. Until there are wars, hunger, poverty, abortion, religious persecution and other maladies which brings about the killings of the innocents, we cannot fully celebrate the realization of Christmas throughout the world.  Until there are still Herods who wields power over the poor, vulnerable and powerless, we cannot remain complacent and continue to work towards justice and peace that are the fruits of the Christmas spirit. Until there are parts of ourselves who like Herod want nothing to do with the gospel values that Christ proclaimed, we cannot fully celebrate and experienced the joy of Christmas. The feast of the Holy Innocents is a reminder for us that the work of Christmas is a work that we need to undertake throughout the year.

 

St. Stephen, Protomartyr: Living the True Spirit of Christmas

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After all the merry-making, all the festivities, all the food and drinks, all the joyous gatherings we attended yesterday on Christmas day, we celebrate today the feast of St. Stephen, first martyr of the church. We hear in the liturgy today the bloody death of Stephen, and of Jesus’ warnings of persecution, death, and hatred for his name’s sake.

Is the liturgy playing kill joy during this Christmas season?

No, in fact, within 2 days, we will celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents. The feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates the massacre of young children in Bethlehem by King Herod the Great in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16–18).

On the contrary, the Church’s long tradition of celebrating the memorial of St. Stephen after Christmas does not serve to demote Christmas, but to continue it. The liturgy after Christmas wish to manifest more clearly that when Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts, his incarnation in our lives cannot remain without effect. Jesus was born into this world in order to teach us how to die to the values of the world and live in the values of God’s kingdom. St. Stephen’s faith-filled martyrdom focuses our attention on this truth.

I remember in 2015, around Christmas time, we displayed gruesome photos of the extra-judicial killing around the shrine. The killings were justificed by the government as a collateral result of its bloody war on drugs. Many of the devotees who went to the shrine were shocked when they saw the pictures although many also expressed support to the photo gallery. On social media,  we were called all sorts of names—bastard priests, demons from hell, members of the yellow cult, rapists and pedophiles, coddlers of drug lords, thieving hypocrites playing politics—many of them coming from the devotees. It is utterly distressing that in a Christian country like ours, the killings is tolerated, even supported by a majority of people who are mostly Catholic.

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St. Stephen’s is one the first deacons of the church. As a deacon he had a twofold task. He was assigned to the service of the tables, the “service of love” to the poor, so that the Apostles would have more time for preaching. But since he also the gift of preaching, he should also perform this ministry of truth. And Stephen, trusting in Jesus, devoted himself whole-heartedly to these tasks. He was stoned to death because his preaching of Jesus as the Son of God was considered blasphemy.

But St. Stephen make no compromises concerning the truth. He proclaims the Jesus who revealed himself and whom he had come to know. But he does not proclaim this truth by way of violence or hatred, but in love and in self-giving. Until the last moment he forgives the men who kill him. As Jesus prayed for those who killed him, so St. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not count this sin against them!” And his witness, his death was fruitful for the Church. The remembrance of this witness, for example, probably helped Saul later to accept Christ’s message, and thereby to become the great Apostle Paul.

The example of St. Stephen shows us that the world needs the witness of the truth in love and in self-giving, despite the violence in the world today. This is an essential implication if we would take seriously the challenge of living out the true spirit of Christmas.