Monday, January 09, 2012

The Counts of Jesu Christo, Part II

The Massacre of the Holy Innocents by Fra Angelico

By Michael P. Foley

This article is a companion to an article of the same name in the christmas 2008 issue of the Latin Mass.

It might seem odd to think of anyone else besides the Infant Jesus or the Holy Family during the octave of Our Lord’s Nativity, but the Church in her wisdom does precisely that. Immediately following Christmas Day are the feasts of several holy men and boys known as the comites Christi, “the comrades of Christ.” Comes not only means “companion” but it is also the Latin word for the noble title of count. As this would suggest, the comites Christi are somehow close to their Lord in the way that a royal entourage is close to its king. The Church acknowledges a spiritual intimacy by placing the feasts of certain saints close to that of the birthday of their Sovereign: the Byzantine rite, for example, pays special honor to the Princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, by celebrating their feast on December 28.

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It might seem odd to think of anyone else besides the Infant Jesus or the Holy Family during the octave of Our Lord’s Nativity, but the Church in her wisdom does precisely that.

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During the same week, the Western Church honors St. Stephen (December 26), the first martyr in both act and desire and hence the first to be honored after Christmas; St. John the Evangelist (December 27), the disciple closest to Christ during the Last Supper; the Holy Innocents (December 28), close to the Infant Jesus by their martyrdom; St. Thomas Becket (December 29), whose death at the hands of a Christian king on this day in 1170 so shocked Christendom that his feast day was given the privilege of remaining within the Christmas octave; and St. Sylvester (December 31), the Pope who lived to see the civic peace that followed the Roman persecutions and whose feast thus aptly gives voice to our prayers for the new civic year.

Three years ago, we looked at the feasts of two such counts, Saints Stephen the Proto-Martyr and John the Apostle.1 This year we turn our attention to the rest of the Roman rite’s Christmas Camelot: the Holy Infants, St. Thomas Becket, and Pope St. Sylvester.

The Holy Innocents (December 28)

Herod, perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: “A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not” (Mt. 2:16-18).
St. Matthew’s chilling description of the massacre of Bethlehem’s baby boys does not indicate how many were killed in Herod’s effort to murder the Infant Jesus. The Byzantine liturgy mentions 14,000, the Syrian churches speak of 64,000, and some medieval authors, inspired by Revelation 14:3, speak of a staggering 144,000. Based on fertility rates and the size of the population of Bethlehem and its environs at the time, however, a more realistic estimate places the number of the slain somewhere between ten and twenty.

Matthew’s account is also silent about the date of the massacre, except for hinting that it happened within two years of the apparition of the Magis’ star. The Armenian feast day honoring the Holy Innocents falls on Monday after the Second Sunday after Pentecost in accordance with a belief that they were killed fifteen weeks after the nativity of our Lord. The Byzantine calendar has the feast on December 29, while the Syrian and Chaldean calendars have it on December 27.

The Church of Rome, from what we can tell, has always kept the feast of “Childermas” (Children’s Mass) on December 28, ever since it first began being celebrated there in the fifth century. In so doing, the Western Church presents an interesting array of Christly counts on December 26, 27, and 28: first St. Stephen, the Proto-Martyr who is martyr by will, love, and blood; then St. John the Evangelist, who is martyr by will and love (John is considered a martyr because of the attempts made on his life even though he died a natural death); and lastly, the Holy Innocents, who are martyrs by blood alone.

But if they are not martyrs by blood alone, how can they be martyrs at all? Isn’t a martyr someone who dies because he consciously professes faith in Christ? The very fact that the Church acknowledges the murder of these little ones as holy martyrdom is itself significant, as it tells us something about the nature of salvation and childhood. A child normally does not attain the use of reason until the age of seven, and even then he is under the care of his parents, who act as a kind of “surrogate reason,” helping him develop his rational faculties. Yet an infant, under the supervision of another surrogate (his godparents), may be baptized long before he has the ability to believe in the creed for the simple reason that just as he did not personally choose the curse of original sin with which he was born, so too need he not choose the cure of baptismal grace in order to be saved.

Similarly, the Holy Innocents did not choose martyrdom or even Christ, but this is not due to any failure on their part but to the undeveloped state of their minds. What matters here, as with baptism, is the action done to them. The fact that they died not only for Christ but instead of Him makes them flores martyrum, the “flowers of the martyrs.” As St. Augustine eloquently puts it: “They are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution.”2 The Breviary Hymn for the feast, Salvete Flores Martyrum, alludes to this botanical epithet, along with a touching portrayal of the Innocents playing with their symbols of martyrdom before the altar of God:
You, tender flock of lambs, we sing,
First victims slain for Christ your King:
Beside the very altar, gay
With palms and crowns, ye seem to play.
The Mass of Childermas

As this bittersweet image attests, even though martyrdom is a glorious event in which the Church rejoices, it is difficult not to be moved by the thought of helpless toddlers being cut down in the streets. The Church, therefore, taking heed of Matthew’s citation of “Rachel weeping for her children” from the prophet Jeremiah, assumed the role of a second Rachel and mourned for these little ones. Except for when the feast fell on a Sunday, violet was the liturgical color, and the Gloria and Alleluia were suppressed. In the early centuries, Roman Christians also abstained from meat on Holy Innocents’ Day. It was on the octave day of the feast (January 4) that the Church turned her thoughts to the young martyrs’ glory, the Mass being celebrated in red with the Gloria and Alleluia. In the 1950s, however, the octave was eliminated, and so currently in the 1962 calendar red is the color of Childermas, and the Gloria and Alleluia are used. The station church of the day, St. Paul Outside the Walls, was chosen because it is believed that it contains the bodies of several of the Holy Innocents.3

Massacred of the Holy Innocents (detail) by Reni Guido

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But if they are not martyrs by blood alone, how can they be martyrs at all? Isn’t a martyr someone who dies because he consciously professes faith in Christ? The very fact that the Church acknowledges the murder of these little ones as holy martyrdom is itself significant.

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Childermas Customs

The twelve days of Christmas are a time of “topsy-turvy” customs, where social ranks and pecking orders are inverted in giddy imitation of the grandest inversion of all, the fact that Almighty God humbled Himself to be born a man in a chilly and foul-smelling stable. Childermas is no exception. In many religious communities, the novices had the privilege of sitting at the head of the table at meals and meetings, while the last person who had taken vows in the monastery or convent got to be superior for a day. Young monks and nuns would received congratulations and have “baby food,” such as hot cereal, served to them for dinner.4

A similar flip-flop occurred in the family. Customs like decorating the crib or blessing the baby were standard ways of observing the feast, and the youngest child was allowed special privileges and honors, even becoming master of the household. Not all customs, however, bode well for the young ’uns. In some places, children awoke to a spanking from their parents “to remind them of the sufferings of the Innocents!”5 Lover of tradition though I be, I do not recommend resuscitating this particular observance. It does, however, serve as a useful reminder to spoiled children when they complain about not being treated as royally on this day as they would wish.

In the Philippines and Spanish-speaking countries, Childermas is the equivalent of April’s Fools Day, a time of pranks and practical jokes called inocentadas. And, of course, all of Christendom once abstained from servile work on this day—along with the other twelve days of Christmas.

St. Thomas Becket (December 29)

Thomas Becket was born on December 21, the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, in either 1118 or 1120. He became a trusted subordinate of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who appointed him Archdeacon of Canterbury and eventually recommended to King Henry II that he be appointed Chancellor of England. Thomas and Henry became fast friends, sharing a commitment to hard work but also behaving in occasion “like two schoolboys at play.”6 Thomas acted vigorously in the interests of his monarch to the full extent of his conscience, but he disdained the licentious ways of his peers, hating “foul conduct or foul speech, lying or unchastity.”7 He also mentored the King’s son. The future Henry III later said that Becket showed him more love on the first day at his home than his father had in his entire life.

Becket became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Some believe that his consecration is what eventually led to the placement of Trinity Sunday on the universal Roman calendar, since Becket procured permission for England to observe this feast as the anniversary of his archbishopric.8 The new Archbishop soon began defending the rights of the Church against the encroachment of the royal government. The most galvanizing issue was whether English clergymen were subject to ecclesiastical courts or the King’s. (In those days, as with our current practice of military courts, different segments of society were subject to different laws and magistracies.) Becket refused to budge, and the King eventually had him convicted of charges of malfeasance during his chancellorship. Thomas stormed out of the trial and fled to France, where he was protected by King Louis VII.

Death of Saint Thomas Becket by Meister Frnacke

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Some believe that his consecration is what eventually led to the placement of Trinity Sunday on the universal Roman calendar, since Becket procured permission for England to observe this feast as the anniversary of his archbishopric.

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Through the mediation of papal diplomacy, Becket returned to England in 1170. But the truce was not to last. Becket excommunicated three bishops when at the will of the King they crowned young Henry III at York, usurping a privilege reserved to Canterbury. Henry II, at the end of his wits, is then said to have retorted, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” There are several versions of what exactly he said, but whatever it was, it was interpreted by four of his knights as a command to kill the archbishop. The men left their weapons outside the cathedral, confronted Becket within and, after he refused to absolve the bishops, returned with their weapons.

They met up with Becket as he was approaching the sanctuary for Solemn Vespers and this time drew their swords. Unlike the stylized movie version, the assassination was gruesome. The eyewitness account from his faithful cross-bearer reports that the knights’ blows opened his skull, spilling his brains onto the pavement. The killers then exulted, saying, “Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.” Thus, as a hymn in his honor puts it, St. Thomas became “both priest and sacrifice in the church of Canterbury for the sake of the laws of justice.”9

It did not take long for all of Europe to venerate Becket as a martyr, and within three years he was canonized a saint by the Pope. A year later, the King himself did penance and was scourged at Becket’s tomb. The shrine was the most popular pilgrimage site in the British Isles until Henry VIII’s thugs destroyed it and the saint’s bones in 1538. St. Thomas’ four murderers fled England and eventually sought forgiveness from Pope Alexander in Rome, who had excommunicated them. The Pope made their penance a term of fourteen years of service as crusaders in the Holy Land.

Legends and Customs

There are several colorful legends about St. Thomas Becket, most of which pay homage to his lovable gruffness. Becket purportedly gave tails to the inhabitants of Strood, Kent, after they sided with the King and cut off the tail of the archbishop’s horse as he rode through town.10 In Otford, Kent, the saint did not like the taste of the drinking water and struck his crosier on the ground to form what is now called “Becket’s Well.” Otford is also said to lack nightingales because one of them made a racket while Becket was trying to pray, prompting him to banish them from the town. But this does not mean that the saint hated the fowls of the air. On one occasion, a little bird that had been taught to speak escaped from its cage and flew into a field. A hawk swooped in for the kill, and as it was about to strike, the panicked bird cried out what it had heard others say in times of distress, “Saint Thomas, help!” The hawk was struck dead, and the bird escaped unharmed.11

There are no universal customs on St. Thomas’ feast day, but it is not difficult to find ways of paying tribute to “England’s most vibrant flower,” as he has been called.12 English food and ale are a good start, along with the 1964 film Becket starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. Based on a play by Jean Anouilh, the movie takes considerable liberties with the biographical details, starting with the fact that it portrays Becket, who was a descendant of the Normans, as a Saxon underdog. Nor was Becket a carousing and opportunistic nihilist prior to his elevation to the See of Canterbury, although he did become much more ascetical at that point, changing, as he once said, from being “a patron of actors and a follower of hounds to a shepherd of souls.” One sign of his transformation was a hair shirt that he wore under his archbishop’s garments (as was discovered by the monks who prepared his body for burial.) Still, the movie is a dramatic and psychological masterpiece, and it accurately portrays some of the challenges St. Thomas faced in his life.

Pope Saint Sylvester (December 31)

Saint Sylvester was Supreme Pontiff during the reign of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who ended the persecution of the Church and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. There are several legends connecting the Pope and the Emperor, though their historical value is dubious. According to one, Constantine was baptized on his death bed by Sylvester; according to another, the baptism took place earlier in his life, when he allegedly contracted leprosy. One memorable version of the legend states that Constantine was told that the only cure for leprosy was to bathe in the blood of 3,000 newborn infants. As the infants were being gathered, Constantine recoiled at this barbarity as incompatible with Roman dignity. That night, Sts. Peter and Paul appeared to him in a dream and told him to go to Pope Sylvester, who baptized and thus cured him in the basilica of St. John Lateran.13 Today, an inscription at the base of the obelisk outside the basilica records this legend.

Pope Saint Sylvester I photo by Nick Exsillo

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Saint Sylvester was Supreme Pontiff during the reign of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who ended the persecution of the Church and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.

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What we do know is that during Sylvester’s pontificate Constantine built several of the great churches of Rome, not only the Lateran but Santa Croce, the original St. Peter’s, and a number of cemeterial churches over the graves of martyrs. The Pope no doubt collaborated with this effort, and he also sent legates to the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council in Church history. The first Roman martyrology was compiled during Sylvester’s papacy, and his name is associated with the “Roman school” of chant.

As mentioned above, there is something appropriate about issuing in the new civic year with the first Bishop of Rome to enjoy civic peace, when our hearts are filled with hope for “peace on earth.” But the reason for the feast day is more literal: after twenty one years of service to God as Pope, Sylvester was buried on December 31, 335.


Sylvester’s feast is so closely tied to December 31 that in many countries New Year’s Eve is simply known as “Silvester” or “Silvester Night” (silvesterabend or silvesternacht in German). In France and French Canada it was traditional for the father to bless the members of his family and for the children to thank their parents for all of their love and care.14 In central Europe, a pre-Christian ritual of scaring away demons with loud noises was retained; from this is derived our custom of fireworks and artillery salutes in welcome of the new year. In Austria, December 31 was sometimes called Rauchnacht or “Incense night,” when the paterfamilias of the family went through the house and barn purifying them with incense and holy water.15

And speaking of luck, Sylvester Night was a favorite occasion for attempts to peer into the upcoming year. The reading of tea leaves was once popular, as was pouring spoonfuls of molten lead into water and interpreting the future from the shapes it took. Young maidens prayed to St. Sylvester in traditional rhymes, asking him for a good husband and hoping through his intercession to catch a glimpse of Mr. Right in their dreams or in the reflection of a mirror.16

On the more pious side of things were vigil services of various kinds thanking God for the gifts of the year and seeking blessings for the new. To this day, Holy Mother Church grants a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, to a public recitation of the great Latin hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, on the last day of the year. A partial indulgence, on the other hand, “is granted to those who recite the Te Deum in thanksgiving.”17

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All of these ancient feasts speak in different ways to the Church today and the contemporary world. On Childermas, for example, some have begun to remember in their prayers the victims of abortion.

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The Feast of St. Sylvester was also considered a good time to feed the body as well as the soul. In Spain and other Spanish-speaking areas it was considered good luck to eat twelve grapes at the twelve strokes of midnight. In Austria, krapfen, apricot-jam doughnuts, are traditionally eaten when the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve. In Poland, Poncz Sylwestrowy (“Sylvester’s Punch”), a strong rum mixture, was similarly imbibed.18


December 28, 29, and 31 celebrate a range of saints, from those who died thirty three years before the Crucifixion to those who died over 1,100 years after. Yet all of these ancient feasts speak in different ways to the Church today and the contemporary world. On Childermas, for example, some have begun to remember in their prayers the victims of abortion. Like their Bethlehem counterparts, the unborn now are innocents being slain by cruel Herods, but unlike the Holy Innocents they are bereft of the privilege of dying explicitly for Christ. Interestingly, there were once folk beliefs in German-speaking countries about some unbaptized babies going to Heaven on Childermas Day.19

Similarly, it would not be inappropriate to pray on St. Thomas’ Day for the return of the Church of England, and indeed of the entire English nation, to the Catholic Faith. Thomas gave his life to protect the Church from subordination to the Crown, as would another Thomas, St. Thomas More, four centuries later. In fact, More drew great consolation from knowing that he was to be executed on July 6, the day before another feast day honoring the brave Archbishop, the Feast of the Translation of the Relics of St. Thomas Becket. Let us pray that “Our Lady’s Dowry” re-embrace its ancient Faith and that Pope Benedict XVI’s generous provisions in his 2009 Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus be accepted.

Lastly, when St. Sylvester died he looked out on a world that no longer butchered Christians and was beginning to appropriate Christian morality in its laws and mores. Today we look at the photographic negative of that picture, as persecutions of Christians increase worldwide and Western society increasingly abandons its sacred heritage. As we celebrate in the octave of Christmas the Light that came into the world, let us pray that It dispel the shadows of our age and its global godlessness. St. Sylvester, help!

[Michael P. Foley, an associate professor of Patristics at Baylor University, is the author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Wedding Rites (Eerdmans, 2008).]


  1. “The Counts of Jesu Christo,” TLM 17:5 (Advent/Christmas 2008), pp. 44-47. [back]

  2. Augustine, Sermon 10 on the Saints. [back]

  3. For more on station days, see my article, “Making the Stations: Stational Churches and the Spiritual Geography of the Roman Patrimony,” TLM 18:1 (Winter 2009), pp. 38-41. [back]

  4. Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1958), 133. [back]

  5. Joanna Bogle, A Book of Feasts and Seasons (Gracewing, 1992), 59. [back]

  6. Herbert Thurston, “St. Thomas Becket,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 14 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912), , retrieved October 3, 2011. [back]

  7. Thurston, ibid. [back]

  8. Thurston, ibid. [back]

  9. In templo Cantuariae/ Pro legibus justitiae/ Fit sacerdos et hostia, from the hymn, Pia Mater Plangat Ecclesia. [back]

  10. “Thomas Becket,” Wikipedia,, retrieved October 3, 2011. [back]

  11. From “The Translation of Saint Thomas of Canterbury,” in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend. [back]

  12. Thomas totius Angliae/ Flos vernans, from the hymn, Pia Mater Plangat Ecclesia. [back]

  13. From “The Life of Saint Silvester,” in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend. [back]

  14. Weiser, Religious Customs in the Family (Liturgical Press, 1956), 62. [back]

  15. Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger, Feast Day Cookbook (Catholic Authors Press, 1951/2005), 170. [back]

  16. Weiser, Handbook, 139. [back]

  17. Enchiridion of Indulgences, 60. [back]

  18. For the recipes, see Evelyn Vitz, A Continual Feast (Ignatius Press, 1985), 158-59. [back]

  19. See Weiser, Handbook, 133-34. [back]

[Michael P. Foley is associate professor of patristics at Baylor University. He is author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything(Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Wedding Rites: A Complete Guide to Traditional Vows, Music, Ceremonies, Blessings, and Interfaith Services(Eerdmans, 2008). Dr. Foley's article, "The Counts of Jesu Christo -- Part 2,” Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Fall 2011), pp. 44-48, is reproduced here by kind permission of Latin Mass, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]