The Witness Days

26-31 December NT
On the six days between Christmas Day its Octave on 1 January, we have five commemorations of persons who have in various ways, by martyrdom or otherwise, born witness to the truth of the Christian faith. (Note that the word Martyros in pre-Christian Greek means simply "witness," and that it is not always clear (as in Revelation 2:13) whether Christian uses of it ought to be translated as "witness" or in the narrow technical sense as "martyr", that is, someone who has explicitly chosen to die sooner than to deny Christ as Lord.)

On December 26th, we remember St. Stephen, first member of the early Christian church to be put to death for his faith -- see Acts 6,7. He was "a martyr in will and deed."

On December 27th, we remember St. John the Evangelist, one of the Twelve Apostles. It is commonly believed that, although he was imprisoned and beaten for his adherence to Christ, he lived to old age and died a natural death. He was "a martyr in will but not in deed," meaning that he was willing to lay down his life for his Lord, but was not called on to do so -- See M 20:20-28 = P 10:35-45.

On December 28, we remember the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem who were slaughtered by command of King Herod lest one of them prove a danger to his throne -- see M 2:16-18. They were "martyrs in deed, though not in will," and their deaths are a disquieting reminder that suffering on behalf of a good cause is not always restricted to those who have a choice in the matter.

The witnesses commemorated on these first three days are all from New Testament times. On the two days following, we commemorate witnesses from a later period in Christian history. Taking them in reverse order of days --

On December 31 we commemorate Sylvester, bishop of Rome from 313 to 335 -- that is, roughly from the Edict of Toleration issued by the Emperor Constantine to the death of the said Emperor, and thus the first bishop of Rome in the days after Christianity ceased to be an illegal and persecuted religion. With his term of office, we enter an era when to become a Christian is no longer to place oneself in automatic danger of being put to death by the government. However...

On December 29, we remember Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain in his own cathedral in 1170, for his defiance of King Henry II. The death of Thomas reminds us that a Christian, even when safe from pagans, can be in danger from his fellow-Christians.

Two recent additions to the Kalendar are John Wylcif (31 Dec), a pioneer of Bible translation; and Josephine Butler (30 Dec), who came to the assistance and defense of women whom society had, in effect, declared outside its protection. Neither was (in the technical sense) a martyr. Both are witnesses.

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In recent years, it has become the practice of some groups of Christians to give the First Sunday after Christmas precedence over the observance of these days, and so to postpone by one day those commemorations falling on or after that Sunday.

On January 1st, we celebrate the Circumcision of Christ. Since we are more squeamish than our ancestors, modern calendars often list it as the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, but the other emphasis is the older. Every Jewish boy was circumcised (and formally named) on the eighth day of his life, and so, one week after Christmas, we celebrate the occasion when Our Lord first shed His blood for us. It is a fit close for a week of martyrs, and reminds us that to suffer for Christ is to suffer with Him.

Stephen, Deacon and Protomartyr (26 Dec Nt)

All that we know about Stephen the Protomartyr -- that is, the first martyr of the early Christian Church -- is found in chapters 6 and 7 of the Book of Acts.

The early Christian congregations, like the Jewish synagogues, had a program of assistance for needy widows, and some of the Greek-speaking Jews in the Jerusalem congregation complained that their widows were being neglected. The apostles replied: "We cannot both preach and administer financial matters. Choose seven men from among yourselves, respected, Spirit-filled, and of sound judgement, and let them be in charge of the accounts, and we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word." The people accordingly chose seven men, including Stephen, and the apostles laid their hands on them. They are traditionally considered to be the first deacons, although the Scriptures do not use the word to describe them. (A century or more later, we find the organized charities of each local congregation in the hands of its deacons.)

Stephen was an eloquent and fiery speaker, and a provocative one. (Some readers have speculated that some of his fellow Christians wanted to put him in charge of alms in the hope that he would administer more and talk less.) His blunt declarations that the Temple service was no longer the means by which penitent sinners should seek reconciliation with God enraged the Temple leaders, who caused him to be stoned to death. As he died, he said, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." One of those who saw the stoning and approved of it was Saul (or Paul) of Tarsus, who took an active part in the general persecution of Christians that followed the death of Stephen, but who was later led to become a Christian himself.

We remember Stephen on December 26, the day after Christmas. Hence the song

Good King Wenceslas looked out
   On the feast of Stephen,

Describes an action of the king on the day after Christmas Day. The tune used with this song is older than the words and was previously used with a hymn often sung on the feasts of Stephen and other martyrs. It begins:

Christian friends, your voices raise.
   Wake the day with gladness.
God himself to joy and praise
   turns our human sadness:
Joy that martyrs won their crown,
   opened heaven's bright portal,
when they laid the mortal down
   for the life immortal.

PRAYER (traditional language)

We give thee thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the First martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to thy Son Jesus Christ, who standeth at thy right hand: where he liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.

PRAYER (contemporary language)

We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the First martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand: where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.