The week between Christmas and New Year contains a stream of major feasts of saints that often gets overlooked in the aura of the Nativity observance. It may seem odd that the daily prayer life of the Church—the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours—is dominated for the most part by feasts which seem somewhat unconnected to the theme of Christmas. A simple explanation is that some saints enjoyed established observances before the liturgical feast of Christmas took root in the fourth century. In other cases, there is good historical proof that a saint died during the Octave or eight-day solemn observance of Christmas.
December 26: St. Stephen. According to St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles [Chapters 6 and 7], Stephen is a major figure in the first years of the post-Resurrection Church. Formally designated by the Apostles as a deacon or community servant, Stephen was an outstanding preacher whose vigorous proclamation of Jesus as Savior in the Temple before the Sanhedrin led to his being stoned to death. He is venerated as the Church’s first martyr. According to St. Luke, as Stephen lay dying, he prayed aloud, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And again, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
December 27: St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. This is the feast of the Apostle and Evangelist, and while we do not know exactly how and where he died, Christian legend has it that he miraculously escaped a martyr’s death. Third century Church writers state that he died in Ephesus, or present-day Turkey. It is certain that he was venerated with an annual feast long before the December 25 date of Christmas was established.
John is portrayed with Peter in the Acts of the Apostles as performing signs and wonders in the days immediately following Pentecost. His greatest legacy is his authorship of the Gospel of John, though the final draft may have been completed by one of his disciples. The Church has long identified John as “the beloved disciple” of this Gospel. Likewise, John’s authorship is attested to four other New Testament books, i.e., three Epistles and the Book of Revelation.
December 28: The Holy Innocents. The Church in Rome established an observance in the sixth century of the Holy Innocents. In Matthew 2 the evangelist writes that King Herod slaughtered all young boys about two years of age in Bethlehem, in a desperate effort to kill Jesus, who with his family had sought refuge in Egypt. This early Roman feast was observed in mourning and penance. Today these victims are honored as martyrs who died because of their relationship to Jesus, tenuous as it was, innocent victims of events far beyond their control.
The plight of these children is indeed disturbing [Christian Romans certainly thought so], and thus it may be of some comfort that historians have never been able to verify St. Matthew’s Gospel account. In particular, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus has no mention of this crime of Herod’s in his history of the Jewish people, written in the first century. St. Matthew’s narrative of the Innocents is theological in nature, as is his entire Christmas narrative. It should be remembered that in the Book of Exodus the Egyptian pharaoh sets out to kill the firstborn babes to depopulate the Hebrew peoples. The infant Moses was rescued from this massacre. St. Matthew’s catechetical goal, so to speak, is to depict Jesus as the New Moses. St. Matthew’s intended audience of Jewish-Christians would have caught his intentions immediately.
December 29: St. Thomas Becket [1118-1170 A.D.] St. Thomas Becket is closest to our times; he was martyred on December 29, 1170 in the Canterbury Cathedral. In many respects his life parallels the later St. Thomas More, a chancellor of England who ran afoul of his king.
Becket was nominally a cleric, specifically an archdeacon. In fact, he was the executive assistant and father figure to King Henry II, and eventually Chancellor of England, who supported his king in his encroachments on Church property and policy. He was rewarded for his efforts with appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury.
King Henry’s policies of appointing bishops came under fire from the reformist pope and later saint, Gregory VII. It seems that in his later years Thomas underwent a profound personal conversion and became an ardent protector of Church integrity and papal authority. His conversion greatly angered Henry, who famously proclaimed in the presence of several of his knights, “Who will rid me of this troublesome bishop?” Thomas was hacked to death in his church.
Becket’s death has been immortalized in the twentieth century by T.S. Eliot’s 1935 play, Murder in the Cathedral.
December 31: St. Sylvester. This fourth century saint is venerated for his long tenure as Bishop of Rome [314-335 A.D.] during the reign of the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. This Council, summoned by Constantine, declared the divinity of Christ against a heresy known as Arianism. The Nicene Creed, proclaimed at Mass, is a product of this Council and several that proceeded it; hence the name, “Nicene Creed.” The position of papacy was not yet developed, but Constantine invited Sylvester to attend the Council. The latter declined but sent two legates.
Legend has it that Sylvester baptized Constantine and healed him from leprosy. In turn Constantine awarded to Sylvester [and his successors as bishops of Rome] spiritual and temporal authority over most of civilized Europe in a grant called the Donation of Constantine. This document was often invoked by future popes but was found to be a forgery in the fifteenth century.