The Witness Days
It seems that every year I speak and write about the whirlwind of activity that all but obscures the Holy Day of Christmas. The Feast of the Nativity is scarcely over before miniature nativity sets are put away. The birth of the Light of the Nations closes to the sight of many folks packing away their twinkling lights. The coming of the Son in human flesh fades into memory as the sun sets on the evening of the twenty-fifth of December, which the Church notes as only the First Day of Christmas.
Now, I’d like to spend a few moments on days Two through Four. The subject of each of these days is linked below to another blog’s posts that includes appropriate Scripture readings and prayers.
The days following Christmas are sometimes called the “Witness Days.” The Greek word for “witness” is “martyr,” and these days remind us that our sinful world is hostile to the Gospel message of forgiveness in Christ Jesus. December twenty-sixth is Saint Stephen’s Day. He was the first recorded martyr of the Christian Church.
Stephen knew the gift of Christmas: His Lord had come in human flesh to bring forgiveness. Just as Jesus forgave His killers on the cross, so Stephen forgave those whose stones smashed away his life: “As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59-60)”
The twenty-seventh is the Day of St. John, the Apostle. He didn’t die for the Faith, but was exiled. We thank God that we are not exiled, and can take the promises recorded by John and freely share them.
More deaths follow on the twenty-eighth. Today, Holy Innocents’ Day, commemorates the slaughter of Bethlehem’s children by Herod, as he attempted to destroy the Usurper to his throne. Stephen, John, and the Innocents remind us that not all receive the Gift of Christmas with joy, yet God’s plan of salvation has spread in spite of hatred. Even today, much of the world is actively hostile to the Gospel, yet we continue to proclaim it because any place that acts this way proves its need of the message we bear.
Does all this make the time of Christmas gloomy and depressing? It may, if we try to please God on our own rather than receiving in faith the gift of his Son. This “Fourth Day of Christmas,” dedicated to the massacre of the children of Bethlehem, reminds us of the magnitude not only of the world’s sin, but of our own. Yet it can also be a special reminder of what our Savior came to overthrow. God’s Word of forgiveness gives us life and hope.
Now, as believers, we cry with our brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for the sake of Jesus. But even more, we rejoice with them, for they and we alike have the sure and certain promise of life eternal in Christ our Lord.
Some might complain about dragging all this “blood and violence” into the beauty of Christmas. But Jesus was born flesh and blood, and if we ignore the violence that was done both to Him and to others because of Him, then we are not fully prepared to face this world. His blood shed for us on Calvary became the lifeblood of the world.
The blood of the martyrs reminds us to be “faithful unto death” so we, too, might receive “the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)” The violence done to Him was not repaid, but taken in silence, that He might be our Prince of Peace. The martyrs realized this, and followed where He led. Through their deaths, unbelievers saw the light of truth and came to life in Christ. “Joy to the world” cannot be drowned out by Satan’s threats. According to some sources, even the red decorations and swirls in our candy canes were originally intended to remind us of his blood shed for us, as beauty and sweetness spring forth from savagery and bitterness.
While it brings a sense of quiet to meditate upon a Baby lying silent in a manger or peacefully sucking on His mother’s breast, we know “the rest of the story.” That Baby grew and matured. He entered this world knowing what pains awaited him. He entered into his years of public ministry knowing that the cross would end his preaching and teaching. He called disciples to follow, knowing that they would desert him. He taught the truth of God’s love, knowing that it would foster hatred in many religious leaders. He did all this and more, knowing and accepting the consequences. Now, an even greater peace is ours — Jesus’ suffering and death won peace between us and God.
On that first Christmas, God pulled the wraps off of a present He’d been saving for all eternity. Yet the Gift of Jesus is still a puzzle to many. God grant that we who enjoy the fullness of His mercy would remember to give this gift to others, that they, too, might believe and be saved.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.