Almost as soon as the Feast of Christmas Day settled into the life of the early Church, the irony of these three feast days (St. Stephen, St. John and Holy Innocents) settled in immediately following it. The fist we celebrate today is especially jarring—from the sweet babe in the manger to the Church’s first martyr.
The wisdom of these days, and why they were placed here, is not to allow sentimentality to overpower Christmas. The babe in the manger will grow into the man Jesus and following him will have its consequences. The early church knew this well, knowing three kinds of martyrdom, corresponding to these three feast—the killing of one explicitly for his or her faith in Christ, the martyrdom of exile we remember on St. John’s Day tomorrow (sometimes called “white martyrdom”) and the martyrdom of innocent victims, we remember on Holy Innocents’ Day.
We do not live in an age of martyrs, although there are those who continue to die for their faith, although certainly not commonly in our own cultural context. The martyrdom of Innocents still exist in larger proportions than we might want to admit, including some on our own streets. It is the Feast of the Holy Innocents that perhaps resonates the most with us in our day—or should.
But I want to suggest today that a “new” kind of martyrdom is necessary for we Christians to take up in our day. I don’t know if it gets a color—like “red martyrdom” or “white marytyrdom.” But I do believe it is absolutely essential if the church is to survive and thrive in our day.
The martyrdom of which I speak is conversion and confession, the urgency of knowing and telling others about a God who is with us as healer, forgiver, and reconciler, a God who demands that we give up death and vengeance and suspicion as a way of life.
This is a kind of martyrdom for most of us, because it may very well not be a popular message among many around us and we may very well suffer for delivering it. It will certainly call upon some courage to speak and a risk to our reputations, for it is a real problem among us that we are not so sure all the time that we actually want people to know we are followers of Jesus, at least not ardent ones.
And perhaps most difficult for us in the church, it will mean placing a lower priority on trying to sell the church as a way to growth. We cherish too much our church communities and our witness tends to be about them—if only people knew what a wonderful little family we have here, they would flock to us. The truth is that is not the truth, which is hard for us to bear.
The truth is that people will only begin to come back to us if we are true bearers of the message, if we, in the words of the old saying, “practice what we preach,” which means a commitment to both practice and “preaching,” confessing, telling.
Stephen died for his telling. We probably will not die, but we must be willing to risk it, including the death of our communities, so that the truth may be told—the truth of love, the truth of forgiveness as a way of life, and reconciliation as the highest value we hold.