Christmas isn't a fairytale, and the feasts of the martyrs during the Christmas season remind us that we're celebrating a Savior from evil.
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On the day after Christmas, the pope traditionally leads the midday Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, as he does on Sundays. That day is the feast of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, whose death is recounted in Acts of the Apostles.
In his reflection, Pope Francis noted the celebration of martyrs – St. Stephen, and then the Holy Innocents – during the Christmas Octave: “The liturgy really seems to want to steer us away from the world of lights, lunches, and gifts in which we might indulge somewhat in these days. Why?”
Because Christmas is not the fairytale of the birth of a king, but it is the coming of the Saviour, who frees us from evil by taking upon himself our evil: selfishness, sin, death. This is our evil: the selfishness we carry within us, sin, because we are all sinners, and death. And the martyrs are those most similar to Jesus. Indeed, the word martyr means witness: the martyrs are witnesses, that is, brothers and sisters who, through their lives, show us Jesus, who conquered evil with mercy.
The Holy Father noted that in our own day, there are more martyrs than in the early times, and he urged us to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters.
But he also suggested a question: “It will do us good to ask ourselves: Do I bear witness to Christ? And how can we improve in this?”
Pope Francis suggested three concrete steps, following St. Stephen’s example:
Stephen’s “first witness was not given in words, but through the love with which he served those most in need.”
Welcoming the Word of God and sharing it
Stephen shared faith in the light of the Word of God and the teaching of the Apostles (cf. Acts 7:1-53, 56).
Stephen’s greatest testimony is yet another: that he knew how to unite charity and proclamation. He left it to us at the point of his death when, following the example of Jesus, he forgave his killers (cf. 60; Lk 23, 34).
A greater gift
The Pope said:
Here, then, is our answer to the question: We can improve our witness through charity towards our brothers and sisters, fidelity to the Word of God, and forgiveness. Charity, Word, forgiveness. It is forgiveness that tells whether we truly practice charity towards others, and if we live the Word of God. Forgiveness [in Italian perdono], is indeed as the word itself suggests, a greater gift [dono], a gift we give to others because we belong to Jesus, forgiven by him. I forgive because I have been forgiven: let us not forget this…
Let us think, let each one of us think of his or her own capacity to forgive: How is my capacity to forgive, in these days in which perhaps we encounter, among the many, some people with whom we have not gotten along, who have hurt us, with whom we have never patched up our relationship.
Let us ask the newborn Jesus for the newness of a heart capable of forgiveness: We all need a forgiving heart! Let us ask the Lord for this grace: Lord, may I learn to forgive. Let us ask for the strength to pray for those who have hurt us, to pray for those who have harmed us, and to take steps of openness and reconciliation. May the Lord give us today this grace.
May Mary, Queen of martyrs, help us to grow in charity, in love of the Word and in forgiveness.