St. Stephen, the First Martyr
Acts 6:8-10;7:54-59 + Matthew 10:17-22
December 26, 2018
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Today’s feast is similar to the feast of the Holy Innocents, whom we’ll honor in the Sacred Liturgy in two days. To some, the celebration of these martyrs within just days of celebrating the birth of the tiny God-man might seem inapt, if not downright macabre. In truth, the Sacred Liturgy is focusing our attention on the integrity of our Faith.
After all, today’s First Reading—relating to us the martyrdom of Stephen—is set not long after the birth of the Church at Pentecost. St. Stephen, we might say, is the “first fruits” of Pentecost.
“Jesus was born into this world only in order to teach us how to die to this world.” St. Stephen’s faith-filled martyrdom focuses our attention on this truth. Each of us in our turn must accept death, by means of the spiritual practice of mortification, as a way of life.
St. John, Apostle & Evangelist
1 John 1:1-4 + John 20:1,2-8
December 27, 2018
…what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us….
“God is love.” There’s hardly a less controversial statement in modern Western culture than this one. But if you were to press people as to the implications of this simple statement, you’d quickly see a divergence from the scriptural witness to this belief that God is, in His very Three-Personed nature, self-sacrifical love.
It is St. John the Evangelist, whose feast the Church celebrates on this third day of the Octave of Christmas, who tells us that “God is love” [1 John 4:8]. But St. John—often called “the Beloved Disciple”—also unpacks that simple statement throughout his three epistles and his Gospel account. We might say that these four books of the New Testament are a primer in the nature of divine love.
My favorite single verse of Sacred Scripture is from St. John’s first letter: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us, and offered His Son as an expiation for our sins” [1 John 4:10]. The life of St. John the Evangelist bears witness to this truth.
The Beloved Disciple was, of course, the only one of the twelve Apostles to remain with Jesus during His Passion and death. Perhaps owing to this fidelity, he was the only one of the Apostles (excepting Judas Iscariot, of course) who was not martyred. Perhaps also owing to his fidelity to the Crucifixion of Love in the Flesh, it was to John that Jesus entrusted His Blessed Mother. All this illustrates why St. John the Evangelist is called “the Beloved Disciple”, and illustrates the model of discipleship he sets for us.
The Holy Innocents, Martyrs
1 John 1:5—2:2 + Matthew 2:13-18
December 28, 2018
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet….
As did the feast of St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr, today’s feast on the fourth day in the Christmas Octave points our attention to the way in which birth and death are intertwined. Birth and death are not just ends of an earthly spectrum. The link between them is more profound than that.
Of course, today’s feast commemorates not the experience of natural death, or even the death of martyrs who chose to offer themselves in witness to Christ. The horror at the heart of today’s feast—the slaughter of untold innocent infants by a king—stands as a stark contrast to the joy of the Nativity.
Nonetheless, King Herod in his rage and fear takes seriously the threat that the newborn king poses to his earthly power, even if he doesn’t understand the purpose of this infant’s birth into this world. Certainly the reign of Christ the King will put an end to the thrones of all earthly powers. But Christ is the King of Kings. Unlike Herod, Christ seeks to destroy no one, but to give life to everyone, and to give it to the full. Even for those who seek the end of His earthly life, Christ reigns to give them unending life in Heaven.
The Fifth Day within the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord
1 John 2:3-11 + Luke 2:22-35
December 29, 2018
Whoever loves his brother remains in the light….
The branch of theology called Christology explores answers to the question posed by the old Christmas hymn: “What child is this?” Many Scripture passages about the nativity and early life of Jesus reflect on the question of His identity. For example, the three gifts of the Magi represent the Person before whom they prostrate themselves. When Mary and Joseph are confused at finding the child Jesus in the Temple, Jesus drives home the point that He is the Son of God who belongs in God the Father’s earthly House.
Of course, as a disciple of Jesus, each of us wants to know more about Him not for the sake of knowledge itself. We want to know who Jesus is so that we might love Him better: more thoroughly, more deeply, and more selflessly.
Throughout the Christmas Season, the Sacred Liturgy turns to St. John the Beloved Disciple for an answer to that hymn’s question, “What child is this?” Throughout John’s Gospel account, and even more so in his epistles, the Beloved Disciple teaches us that “God is love” [1 John 4:8], and then teaches us what it means for a disciple to enter into this love.
In today’s First Reading from the First Letter of Saint John, the Beloved Disciple responds to the question of “How do we know Jesus?”, which is a variation on “What child is this?” John’s response is that “the way [to] know Jesus is to keep His commandments.” This might seem an odd answer: how would one’s commandments tell us about the commander’s identity? If we were to reflect further on this question, we might realize how one generally commands about matters only of importance to oneself. In the case of God, His commands are commands to live in Him: to live in love, or rather, simply to love.