Catholics and other liturgically minded Christians continue to celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas—the real ones, not those immortalized in the fun little song that has nothing to do with Catholic beliefs. On this Third Day of Christmas (December 27), we honor the life of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist. The only one of the Twelve Apostles to die a natural death, Saint John has nevertheless been honored from the beginning as a martyr, because of the sufferings and exile he endured under various persecutions.
Together with Saint Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, whom we honor on the Second Day of Christmas, and the Holy Innocents—the children killed at the order of King Herod when he was trying to murder the Christ Child—whom we honor on the Fourth Day of Christmas, Saint John the Evangelist is one of the comites Christi, the companions of Christ. They received this title for the same reason that their feasts have been placed close to Christmas. Even though Saint John is believed to have died on September 26 (and is honored on that day in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches), he enjoyed a spiritual closeness to Christ that is reflected not only in the gospels but in his "white" martyrdom—that is, the bloodless suffering of exile and persecution. Saint Stephen was the first example of "red" martyrdom, killed for his faith, while the Holy Innocents suffered and died not because of a belief in Christ but because of Herod's hatred for the Savior of mankind.
Placing these three feasts in the three days immediately following Christmas Day, the Church reminds us that the joy of our Faith is tied up with the sorrow of the Cross. We cannot have Christmas without Good Friday, Bethlehem without Calvary. But the sufferings of Saints Stephen and John, rather than diminishing their joy, increased it. May we learn from them the spiritual lessons that will allow us to let our sufferings do the same.
You can learn more about the life of Saint John in Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist.
(A stained-glass window of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist, in Saint Peter's Cathedral, Rockford, Illinois. Photo © Scott P. Richert)