Each weekday, you'll find a new question and answer. Check back for the new question and scroll down to see previous day's entries! Let us know what you think--or question!--by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question of the Day for Friday, December 28, 2007
Q. Are the Holy Innocents considered Christian martyrs?
L. G., Pascagoula, Miss.
A. The Holy Innocents, whose feast we celebrate today, were the young children of Bethlehem massacred at King Herod’s command. He was trying to make sure that the prophesied King (Jesus), whose birth he learned about from the Magi, would not survive to challenge his position (see Mt 2:16–18).
The Church calls St. Stephen the “Protomartyr” or “first martyr” (see yesterday’s Q&A) because he was the first Christian believer to die for his faith. Nevertheless, in a different sense, the Holy Innocents also died for Christ, even though they weren’t conscious of that reason for their death.
“The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” a recent study from the International Theological Commission in Rome, was approved for publication by Pope Benedict XVI on January 19, 2007. This document notes that “the liturgy contains a feast of the Holy Innocents, who are venerated as martyrs even though they were not baptized, because they were killed ‘on account of Christ. … Albeit unknowingly, the Holy Innocents suffered and died on account of Christ; their murderers were seeking to kill the infant Jesus” (sec. 5, 86).
Question of the Day for Thursday, December 27, 2007
Q. Why are St. John the Evangelist and his Gospel symbolized by an eagle?
T. T., San Diego, Calif.
A. The Old Testament Book of Ezekiel and the New Testament Book of Revelation both contain visions of an angelic creature with four faces (see Ez 1:1–14; Rev 4:7). These four figures are known as the “Tetramorphs,” and they include a man, a lion, an ox (or calf), and an eagle. As early as the second century, Christians were finding in these visions a symbolic representation of the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Various arrangements were proposed to match each figure with a particular evangelist. But the arrangement that finally prevailed in the Latin Church consisted in symbolizing St. Matthew by a man, St. Mark by a lion, St. Luke by an ox (or calf), and St. John by an eagle.
Several explanations have been offered for these associations. One has to do with the way each Gospel begins. Matthew starts with Christ’s human genealogy. Mark begins with St. John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness as a lion roars in the desert. Luke starts his account in the temple, where oxen were sacrificed by the priests. And John’s Gospel begins by soaring in the heavens like an eagle (Jn 1:1).
The four figures can also remind us of four aspects of Our Lord’s nature and ministry: His humanity (man); His divinity (eagle); His kingship (lion); and His priesthood (ox).
St. John’s feast day is today.
Question of the Day for Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Q. I’ve seen St. Stephen referred to as “the Protomartyr.” What does that mean?
R. T., via email
A. The term protomartyr comes from the Greek prótos (“first”) + martyros (“martyr” or “witness”). The protomartyr of a people is thus their first martyr.
St. Stephen, of course, is the Protomartyr — the very first Christian to die for the faith. The Scripture tells us that he was one of the Church’s first deacons, chosen by the Apostles at Jerusalem, “a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). The stirring account of his heroic witness to Christ is found in Acts 6:8—7:60.
By the way: Have you ever wondered why the old carol “Good King Wenceslaus” is sung around Christmas, even though it has nothing to do explicitly with Our Lord’s Nativity? It’s appropriate for this season because it tells how St. Wenceslaus (c. 903–29), the King of Bohemia, gave alms to a poor man “on the Feast of Stephen,” which is celebrated today, December 26. Like Stephen, Wenceslaus was a martyr for the Faith.
Question of the Day for Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Q. Is it true that the date on which we celebrate Christmas (December 25) has pagan origins?
G. H., Bethlehem, Pa.
A. The actual date of Jesus’ birth is long lost in the mists of ancient history. The fact that shepherds were “in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Lk 2:8) suggests that it was springtime. So why did the Church establish the feast of the Nativity on December 25, in the dead of winter?
The common explanation today was propagated by an 18th-century German Protestant scholar who sought to prove that the Catholic Church was guilty of various “paganizations.” He claimed that, since a pagan Roman feast was celebrated on December 25 in ancient times to honor the sun, the Church decided to co-opt it by having Christians observe Christmas festivities instead. Nevertheless, this claim has been challenged by historians who believe that events actually developed the other way around.
This date, they insist, had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before the year 274, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before then. Rather, the pagan feast celebrating the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on December 25 of that year, had political purposes and served to give a pagan significance to a date already important to Roman Christians. Later, Christians in turn re-appropriated the pagan celebration to refer to the birth of Jesus Christ, the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice.”
If this is the case, then we still must ask why the early Christians would have chosen the day December 25. According to this historical scenario, they were attempting to calculate the date of Jesus’ birth according to a certain other tradition: the notion, inherited from Jewish religious culture, that a great prophet was destined to die on the same calendar date as that of his birth or conception.
Because of previous calculations involving the ancient Jewish lunar calendar and the date of the Passover, Christians in the West generally came to the conclusion that Jesus had died on March 25, and thus had been conceived on that day as well (which is when we celebrate, of course, the Feast of the Annunciation). Nine months later (December 25) would then have been the reasonable date to set for Jesus’ birth.
We might reasonable ask whether it would really matter if either historical scenario were somehow proven conclusively to be true. Even if the Church did arrange its liturgical calendar to “baptize” a pagan holiday (as it seems to have done with All Saints’ Day), the legitimacy of the principle has long been established: Whether it’s evergreen wreaths or wedding rings, the customs of pagan cultures can be fruitfully adopted by the Church, enriched with Christian meaning, and made her own.
For more information on this topic, see Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Liturgical Press, 1991; click here).
Question of the Day for Monday, December 24, 2007
Q. Is it true that the Puritans outlawed Christmas? If so, why would they do such a thing?
B. V., Caspar, Wyo.
A. Yes. When Puritans gained political control in an area, they usually ended up banning the celebration of Christmas there (e.g., in Scotland, in 1562; England, 1644; Massachusetts, 1659). In some locales, the people were actually required to work on the day. They had several motivations for the ban.
First, Christmas, which literally means “Christ’s Mass,” was seen as a “popish” celebration, an unwelcome reminder of the ancient calendar of holy days observed by the Catholic Church. Though many Protestants, especially those in the Church of England, also celebrated the day enthusiastically, the Puritans sought a more radical break from the past. They viewed Christmas as yet one more Catholic practice that should be discarded from the Reformation tradition.
Second, the strict Sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”) orientation of the Puritans led them to reject the holiday. Christ’s nativity, though reported in the Bible, is not associated in the biblical text with the date of December 25. (In recent times it’s been widely believed that the Church established the feast on that day, not on biblical grounds, but in order to co-opt a pagan festival. However, this notion has been challenged by some historians; see the Q&A for tomorrow.)
In fact, the Puritans didn’t seek to celebrate Christmas on any day of the year. After all, Scripture doesn’t explicitly command a feast to celebrate the occasion. (Their position raises a good question to pose to friends who believe in a strict Sola scriptura. If all our religious practices must authorized by Scripture, then how can we justify celebrating Christmas?
Finally, the Puritans opposed Christmas celebrations because the day had become for many merrymakers an annual occasion of drunkenness, lewdness, vandalism and brawling. I have to admit that I feel some sympathy for this concern. We certainly don’t honor Jesus by turning His birthday into an excuse for flagrant sinning (nor for shopping orgies, for that matter).
Nevertheless, we can be glad that in this particular matter the Puritans did not prevail. The fact that we don’t know the actual calendar date of Our Lord’s nativity shouldn’t keep us from celebrating His birthday. I, for one, am delighted to have such a joyous occasion — with all its festive carols, candies, candles and colored lights — to brighten the darkness of what might otherwise be a dreary time of year. Wassail!
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