It used to sort of irritate me that three holy days — the feasts of St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents — come right on the heels of Christmas. Just as we make the psychological shift from Advent as the season of expectation to the all-too-brief twelve days of Christmas, we must pause to remember the lives of these particular saints. “With all the ‘open’ days in the Calendar,” I used to wonder, “why couldn’t these saints be commemorated on other days outside the Christmas season?”
But, reading Dear Henri, a recently released collection of the letters of Henri Nouwen, the late Dutch priest and spiritual guide to so many of us in the last decades of the twentieth century, I learned for the first time that these saints are sometimes referred to as Comites Christi or the “Companions of Christ.” This, not only because their celebrations fall close to that of Christ’s birth, but because they share certain qualities with him.
St. Stephen, the most famous of the seven proto-deacons selected by the apostles according to the Book of Acts, was also the first Christian martyr, the first Christian to have his life taken because of his profession of faith. Jesus is sometimes called “the King of Martyrs” but Stephen leads a centuries-long procession of faithful souls who have followed him in giving their very lives rather than deny the One they serve.
St. John, author of the Fourth Gospel, is identified in the church Calendar also as an “apostle.” Anciently it was thought that the same John mentioned in the list of the twelve apostles was also the author of the Gospel of the same name. More recent scholarship suggests that this was unlikely for a variety of reasons. But, if the word “apostle” is defined here in its generic sense as “one who is sent,” surely the one who penned the stunning words of the last canonical Gospel written would be worthy of the designation. The theologian who first articulated that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” surely deserves a place in the Christmas season.
As do “the Holy Innocents,” those young children who, tradition tells us, were slaughtered by King Herod in his frustrated attempt to eliminate one who might rival him as “King of the Jews.” Like those Hebrew babies similarly murdered in the story of Pharoh’s attempt to thin out the ranks of the children of Israel lest they become one day a mighty army of rebellion, the Gospel of Matthew’s Holy Innocents share, with Jesus the fate of being unjustly slain because of the fears and ambitions of a tyrant.
I don’t know why my theological education over these last seventy years did not include the identification of these “Christmas saints” as “Companions of Christ.” But I am grateful to my brother Henri Nouwen, now himself a member of the Church Triumphant in Paradise, for leaving behind so many beautiful letters for those of us who also might dare to call ourselves