The Christmas Mystery of Martyrdom


The mystery of martyrdom is another name for the mystery of the Incarnation. We note martyrdom’s liturgical prominence during the Christmas Octave, with the feasts of St. Stephen Thomas à Becket and especially the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

Martyrdom is giving bodily witness to the reality of truth and love, in a world in which power and success alone seem real. The mystery of the Incarnation is the mystery of the becoming-flesh of infinite truth and infinite love, along with the correlative fact that every time a new human body comes into existence, there begins a new visibility of the invisible God.

Jesus Flows In

But there is more to the identity of martyrdom and Incarnation: God becomes flesh to accomplish the purposes of love, the purposes of a love that is infinitely “passionate” (as the Cross reveals) and that is thoroughly characterized by solidarity: “For by His Incarnation, the Son of God in some way has united Himself with every man,” in the words of Gaudium et spes.

God becomes flesh to identify with each of us in our godforsaken condition of having chosen power over truth and love, and to liberate us from that condition. Like water, God seeks the lowest level. Where there is pain, Jesus flows in. Where there is weakness, Jesus flows there. Thus begins the visible growth of a Kingdom of Love.

Bare human life shows us the invisible God most clearly. Where there is a life that is divested by the powers of this world, unprotected by the advantages of social status, we see “unaccommodated man…a poor, bare, forked animal”: and that’s just to see God hanging between heaven and earth.

When we see the weakest human flesh, the flesh that literally cannot survive without love, we see the flesh most intensely iconic. We see God in love.

Herod Understood

The great English mystic Caryll Houselander understood this: “Herod ordered the children to be killed because he was afraid that any one of them might be Christ. Any child might be Christ! The fear of Herod is the fear of every tyrant, the hope of every Christian, and the most significant fact in the modern world.”

To see today’s slaughter of the innocents requires having the eyes of passionate and solidary love, eyes unclouded by the fears that inevitably attend the securing and wielding of power. To have such a countercultural vision requires having hearts grown young again, hearts innocent with the boundless wonder and reckless love of Christ:

“To overcome the world we must become children,” Houselander writes. “To become children we must fold our consciousness upon the Divine Infant Who is the center of our being; Who is our being itself; and all that we are must be absorbed in Him; whatever remains of self must be the cradle in which He lies. This is the answer to Herod in all times, the answer of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in our time: ‘the little way of Spiritual Childhood,’ which is the oneing of the soul with God, in the passion of the Infant Christ.”

As we grow young again in how we know and love, the powers of the world are stripped of their power to harm. We begin to see in the material world the play of an infinite knowing and loving. To suffer and to act become inseparable within the divine dimension of grace, for as we surrender calculation, the plan of God the Father takes hold, and all things become well.


David Franks is a poet, theologian, and activist. He serves as chairman of the board for Massachusetts Citizens for Life , for which he teaches a program leading to a certificate in social ethics and solidarity. He entered the Church in 1998. You can read more about him and read his writing at New City Rising and he shares a Patheos weblog called Beyond All Telling


The image of the stoning of St. Stephen (1863) is the lunette of the main gate of the church of Saint-Etienne du Mont in Paris by Gabriel-Jules Thomas (1824–1905).
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