The Readings for St Stephen’s Day:
Cavete autem ab hominibus. Tradent enim vos in conciliis, et in synagogis suis flagellabunt vos: et ad præsides, et ad reges ducemini propter me in testimonium illis, et gentibus.
Beware of men. For they will deliver you up in councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues. And you shall be brought before governors, and before kings for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.
This week, to celebrate Christmas, we have the feasts of a whole bunch of martyrs:
- 26 Dec – St Stephen, who was killed by nonbelievers for his faith.
- 27 Dec – St John, who wasn’t killed but was imprisoned and harassed by nonbelievers for his faith all his adult life.
- 28 Dec – The Holy Innocents who were slain by nonbelievers for being born too close to Jesus.
- 29 Dec – St Thomas Becket who was slain by supposed believers for his defense of the Church.
There’s a progression here. The Church’s calendar has always been about teaching – which is why the feasts from 26-28 do not change. (The feast on the 29th came later and is of a lower rank but it expands the pattern.)
- St Stephen, an adult, was slain for confessing his faith in public.
- St John, an adult, confessed his faith, but was only a social outcast – they hoped he’d cave in.
- The Holy Innocents had no faith, but the Church counts them as her first harvest of Martyrs because they were slain for Jesus.
- St Thomas was slain by other folks claiming to be Christian because he was willing to stand up to the political powers which they supported.
Here’s the progression:
The faith annoys people in the world and, for a few hundred years, Christians got killed. It was not a solid killing spree though: sometimes Christians were just the freaky folks that normal people had to put up with. Julian the Apostate cemented the pattern that has held forever: Stalin was still doing it last century and Castro was doing it even in this Century. You kill some, oppress the rest – people give up after awhile. Much easier to buy bread when you don’t have to worry about the religion of the baker. In some places the killing gets so great that even the faithless get caught up in the mess. The various wars in various parts of the world that are fought over “religion” end up killing people in the name of religion that might otherwise be faith-neutral. ISIS has slain people who were not Christian who have been named Martyrs by the Copts. Today if you are public about your faith you have to say “yes, but not that kind of Christian” so often. People who pray in public can be mistaken for Muslims by some or for Trumpists by others. How ironic, that? There may be no killing, but there is social ostracization. People of faith can be forced to bake cakes for the Queen of Heaven (see Jeremiah 7:18), but professional musicians and sports teams can break contracts in states with laws they don’t like – and be cheered on.
Yet, I fear the Becket phase is coming.
In the Becket Phase, people who claim to be Christians – but are really only politicians – will kill off the faithful. People who are one sort of Christian will easily hate others and will turn them in. Here, many might expect the liberal all inclusive sort to say “Yes, but not that kind of Christian…” as they point with baseball bats of political correctness at people in Pro-life Marches or those opposed to making up new rules for marriage, sex, or human identity. I don’t find that impossible, but I think in this country, at this time, we’re more likely to see people who support racism in the name of their politicised faith turn against people who support justice in the name of Catholicism, if the former continues to evolve into the law of the land, the latter (including many bishops) will become targets.
In the Stephen Phase, we would have to journey to the Middle East as evangelists to be killed – or, we could sit tight in our protected churches and wait for someone to come find us. Statistically, though, the second case will fit better into the Becket phase described above. We’re more likely to be shot by a conservative in this country than by a Muslim.
So there we are. I don’t have much happiness to share in these feasts of martyrs other than we’re all supposed to be martyrs and it helps if there are those out there who want to help us along the path.