It was years ago that I learned the first feast days on the (Roman) Church calendar are the Feast of the Slaughter of the Innocents (as told in St. Matthew's Gospel) and the Feast of the Martyrdom of St. Stephen. While hardly cheery festivals, these days coming on the heels of the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus remind us, first, of the kind of world in to which Jesus was born; second, with the Feast of the Martyrdom of St. Stephen, we remember what price we pay for following the man that Christmas baby will become.
Part of our problem, at least as Christians living in the United States - among many others! - is that, culturally speaking, we are the descendants of Rousseau. We view children as these marvelously innocent little creatures, open to the world, yet also destined to be corrupted by it. Our maudlin, hyper-romantic approach to the scenes of Jesus' birth too often elide a whole host of matters we would rather not consider in our warm, softly-lit Christmas homes. Everything from the heavy hand of Roman imperialism, Judean royal collaboration, the pretty obvious poverty and desperation of Joseph and Mary become matters that set a scene, rather than the heart of the problem Jesus came to address. With the birth, of course, we forget the ritually unclean state Mary and Joseph would have shared (if, indeed, Joseph assisted with the birth; he most likely did not), further estranging them from the larger society. We personalize our thoughts of the birth and immediate aftermath, rather than socialize them. Our minds filled with saccharine sentimentality, we refuse to allow any thoughts of hardship, worry, or care enter in to that moment that Mary first held her newborn son.
Thanks to the Roman calendar, we are snapped back to reality. Herod, that quisling false king, saw fit to order the death of all boy children under two years old. The blood of those children, the cries of the parents, the stink of the piles of corpses - these are ever-present realities, no less so for the horror, rage, and sorrow they evoke. We must never forget this moment, nor the reality that it was the birth of Jesus that brought it about. Herod, in his fear, sought to prevent any possible rival, even a newborn infant, from rising against him. All because he had heard of the birth of Jesus. Jesus' birth brought not just joy and peace. It also brought wails of mourning and streets running with blood.
St. Stephen's martyrdom gives us reason to remember that following Jesus is not a child's game. It doesn't fill us with that same saccharine sentimentality we keep trying to recall for our American Christmas celebrations. It is a matter of life and death. It might, perhaps, mean our death.
As we continue the week-long party that is Christmas/New Years, it is nice to have these little reminders that Jesus was not born so that we might vacation time, and have it more abundantly. Jesus was born in to a world filled with death and horror, of war and genocide. A world not much different from our own. Following this little baby, all cute and snuggling against his mother, can mean peace, to be sure. It can also mean rejection and horror and death.