The Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of New Christians.
For Vespers & the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on the Paramony of the Nativity: Genesis 1:10-13; Numbers 24:2-3, 5-9, 17-18; Micah 4:6-7, 5:2-4; Isaiah 11:1-10; Jeremiah 3:35-4:4; Daniel 2:31-46, 44-45; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 7:10-16, 8:1-4, 9-10; Hebrews 1:1-12; Luke 2:1-20.
For the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on Christmas Day: Galatians 4:4-7; Matthew 2:1-12.
The Nativity of Our Lord, God & Savior, Jesus Christ.
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1:47 PM 12/25/2012 — Rather than repeat things I've said in previous years—and you can always go onto the parish web site and look up the Christmas homilies from previous years—I would like, instead, to reflect on the celebrations that our Byzantine calendar presents to us during this Holy Season.
Growing up in the Latin Church, I was accustomed to observing the day after Christmas as the feast of St. Stephen. In our Byzantine calendar that day is dedicated to the Theotokos, with St. Stephen being remembered on the following day, December 27th. Eventually, the Latin Church would move the feast of the Mother of God to New Year's Day, making it a Holy Day of Obligation, then loose sight of it altogether as it morphed, under Pope Paul VI, into a Day of Prayer for World Peace. Not that there's anything wrong with praying for world peace; but, there's something to be said for not tinkering too much with the ancient traditions to which our Church still clings.
Whether the Christ was actually born in December is a moot point. The enemies of Christianity seem to think that the lack of historical evidence that a person named Jesus was actually born on December 25th is somehow significant; it really isn't. In point of fact, the observance of Jesus' birth was a relatively late development in Christianity. The first mention of it occurs in Egypt, where the Christians celebrated it on May 20th, at the beginning of the summer. The primary focus of the Church throughout the East was on the feast of the Epiphany or, as we call it now, the Theophany, in January. The first mention of a celebration on December 25th occurs in the year 386, where it was introduced in Antioch by St. John Chrysostom. He later introduced the feast to Constantinople sometime between 398 and 402.
Why he chose the date in December for celebrating the birth of Christ is not clear—it may have been an attempt to cancel out the pagan's celebration of the Winter Solstice which occurred on that day, at the end of the prolonged celebration of the birth of Dionysios at Delphi which was observed by pagan sun worshipers from December 1st through the 23rd. This was commonly referred to as the “feast of the invincible sun”; and one of the Fathers of the Church, St. Cyprian, suggests that the Christians replaced this feast with a celebration of Christ's birth in order to show that Jesus is the only true invincible Son of God.
Of course, how or why the current feast came to be is irrelevant; what is relevant is that, by the Sixth Century, the feast of Christmas was pretty well established in both the East and the West, and has been so ever since.
It was inevitable that the following day, December 26th, would be dedicated to the Mother of God; after all, in order to become a man, God needed a human host. That host had to be free from any stain of sin, so that the flesh took on by God would be as pure as God himself; and, it was that realization that moved the Church to recognize the unique role that Mary played in the whole economy of salvation. So, it wasn't long after the date for celebrating Christ's birth was established that the next day would be observed as the Synaxis or “showing” of the Theotokos, a Greek word which means “the one who bears God.” Jesus comes to us only through her; without her there is no Christ. Thus, it is impossible to celebrate his birth without also celebrating her, and our Church observes this day as a Solemn Holy Day.
But what I find most intriguing is the celebration of the day after that, December 27th, on which our Church observes the feast of the Deacon and First Martyr, Stephen. He is the first of the seven deacons ordained by the Apostles in Chapter Six of the Acts of the Apostles. He is known as a great preacher, and the Bible speaks of him performing many miracles and cures. At the end of the chapter he is arrested by the Scribes; and, the following chapter is a transcript of his trial, during which he lays out the case for Jesus being the Messiah. He is, of course, convicted of heresy and treason against the Jewish people, and condemned to death by stoning. He is the first person to sacrifice his life for Christ.
Present at his trial is a young Pharisee named Saul. It wasn't long after the death of Stephen that Saul would have his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and become the Blessed Apostle Paul.
Now, no date is given for Stephen's martyrdom; we only know that it was not long after the first Pentecost. But why celebrate it right after Christmas? And the answer might be found in the Fathers of the Church, in the Kontakion of his feast which they gave us, and which we still sing: “Yesterday, in human flesh the Master came to us; today, from the flesh, his servant departs. Yesterday, the King was born in the flesh; today, his servant is killed by stoning. Thus, the holy Stephen, the first martyr, is brought to perfection.” Years later, that erudite Father of the Church, Tertullian, would write, “sanguis martyrum semen christianorum”—the blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians (Apol., 50, 13: CCL 1, 171). Stephen's death marked the beginning of a wholesale persecution of the Church which would last for three hundred years, but it also marked the beginning of the Church's phenomenal growth. The sight of so many men and women willingly—even joyfully—going to their deaths rather than deny the divinity of Christ would draw more converts into the Church than even the greatest sermons of the greatest saints. The best preaching is done by example; and, what better example could there be than death?
We celebrate the death of Stephen at Christmas time because giving one's life for Christ is the logical conclusion to the Gospel. It a certain sense, one could say that the first seven chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, written by St. Luke and ending with the death of Stephen, are the final chapters of Luke's Gospel. From that point on, the Apostles would spread out throughout the world, establishing Churches, baptizing converts, ordaining priests and bishops; all but one of them would, one by one, also give their lives in martyrdom for Christ, until that day that the emperor, Constantine, would convert to Christianity and make it the law of the land.
What I would offer for your reflection today is to view all this in light of the current situation in which we find ourselves as a Church. For almost the last two hundred years Christianity held a prominent place in our country; but, what was once a Christian country clearly isn't any longer, and it seems we are entering into a new era of Christian persecution. The new health care law makes it virtually impossible for our once vast Catholic health care system to survive; in state after state marriage is being redefined so as to make the family, the very cell of the Church, a thing of the past; the moral teachings of the Gospel are openly ridiculed in almost every form of entertainment media; the Holy Priesthood is viewed with suspicion; even the concept of taxing the Church is being openly discussed, which would make the very existence of the Church in our country impossible. And in a climate such as this, it is very easy to become despondent, and see nothing but a bleak future for both our Church and our country.
But I would challenge that. I choose, instead, to see something extraordinary happening. As the lines between clear good and clear evil are drawn more boldly every day, I see Christians, albeit fewer in number, more forcefully proclaiming and defending the Gospel of Jesus Christ than ever before. I see them willing to suffer for Christ in a way that Christians haven't been called on to do for centuries. I see the pattern, which began with the death of Stephen, and which has been replayed by Christians so many times throughout Church history, beginning to be replayed again. And if we are blessed to witness the beginning of another era of anti-Christian persecution, why suppose that it will end any differently than any time before? Will it not end, as it always has in the past, with the triumph of the Church over her enemies?
Today we celebrate God becoming a man, the birth of Jesus Christ. In doing so, we also celebrate our own rebirth. If, as Tertullian said, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians, then let it flow, and let us see in this new era the rebirth of the Church like the sprig from the root of Jesse, who is Christ himself.
Father Michael Venditti