The Winter Pascha, Chapter 29: The Blood of the Martyrs
The following is an excerpt from The Winter Pascha, by Fr. Thomas Hopko
The second day of Christmas in the Orthodox Church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is called the synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos. The Church assembles on this day to honor her through whom the savior has come. The entire creation is indebted to the Lord for its redemption, but the Lord Himself is indebted to Mary who, humanly speaking, by the grace of the Spirit, made possible His coming.
There then follow the three days of the postfeast of the Nativity dedicated to the memory of those who were killed for Christ. First is celebrated the memory of the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen. As the hymns of his festival declare, the persecution and death of Christians is an inevitable result of the coming of Christ. Jesus came to die for the truth of God, which is most perfectly actualized in the gift of one's life that others may live. This is the most Godlike expression of love possible to creatures. Christ's disciples imitate His example, which is their calling and command, finding within it their highest joy and fulfillment.
Yesterday the Master assumed our flesh
And became our guest.
Today His servant is stoned to death
And departs in the flesh;
The glorious protomartyr Stephen.1
Stephen is offered to the King
As a living sacrifice.
For today he departs in the flesh
To God Almighty who came to dwell in the flesh,
Completing his combat in honor
For the sake of Christ.2
The third day of Christmas is dedicated to the memory of the holy martyrs of Nicomedia who refused to honor the earthly emperor as king in fidelity to the only King of heaven. Their blood also, according to the ancient Christian saying, has become the seed of the Church.
The throng of twenty thousand martyrs
Appears as a star in the Church,
For these noble men and women
Were inflamed with divine love for their Master,
And in the fire completed the course of their lives
In holiness and joy.3
Finally, on the fourth day of the feast, the "pascha" of the innocent children slain by Herod is celebrated with praise.
The question put to all who celebrate Christ's Winter Pascha concerns our own relationship to the Lord. Are we ready to receive Him, and therefore to love as He has loved us, even to the point of death? Or are we among those who receive Him not, numbered with those who murder Him through our hatred and neglect of our neighbors? As Christ's beloved disciple has said, "He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still... Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, the He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brethren" (1 Jn 2:9; 3:15-16).
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah,
The sceptre of the house of Judah passed away.
Infants who leaped in play were slaughtered for Christ.
A voice was heard in Ramah,
The lamentation of Judah's daughters,
Rachel weeping for her sons, as it is written,
For the lawless Herod murdered the infants.
The land of Judah was soaked with innocent blood;
The earth was reddened by the blood of babies.
But the Church of the Gentiles is washed by this blood;
Clothed in radiant purity, she cries in joy:
The Truth has come!
God is made manifest!
He is born of the Virgin,
Enlightening those who sit in darkness,
For the salvation of the world!4
1Kontakion of the feast of St. Stephen.
2The hymn of light sung at matins of the feast of St. Stephen.
3Kontakion of the feast of the Holy Martyrs of Nicomedia.
4Vesper of the feast of the Holy Innocents.