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The Festivals of the Martyrs






Delivered on the Festival of the Holy Innocents (Sunday,) 1856.









THIS season, my young friends, is called, as you know, the holiday season. You are having a holiday from your tasks at school. You are making yourselves happy in the presents your parents and kind friends have made to you. The churches, and some of your houses, are decorated with festive boughs and wreaths. And you think, perhaps, that holiday means only a day of enjoyment, such as you can find in your sports. This is, in one sense, right; and may you never know a Christmas less merry than the one you have just kept; and may you see many a New Year's day even happier than the one now close at hand.

[4] But it is well on this holy day, and in this holy place, to remind you that the word holiday was at first nothing else than holy day, though, I presume, there are scarcely any two words in the language that seem to you so different in signification. But I am desirous that you should learn to make your holidays, especially when, as yesterday, and Friday, and Christmas day, and New Year's, and Epiphany, the holiday and the holy day fall together; that you should make them holy days, and then, I am sure, you will find them none the less pleasant holidays.

Every one of you can tell me, I am sure, what to-day is, besides being Sunday; and most of you, I have no doubt, know that Friday, the day after Christmas, was St. Stephen's day, and that yesterday was St. John, the Evangelist's day; and most of you, probably, can give some account of St. Stephen and St. John [4/5] the Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents, in honor of whom these days are kept.

In the first place, the festival of the Holy Innocents, which we keep to-day, commemorates the murder of all the little children of Bethlehem, under two years of age, whom the wicked King Herod put to death, because he hoped among them to destroy the infant Jesus. They were too young to know why they were slain, but they were, by their death, witnesses to the fact that Christ was born in Bethlehem. They were too young to know what sin was, and it seems, perhaps, cruel that God should have allowed wicked Herod to put them all to the sword, and make the Jewish mothers to weep so bitterly for their darling children. But then they were taken away in their innocence, transplanted from earth into Paradise; they were the first to die for Christ, and are a part of that great number who, as the Epistle of [5/6] Holy Innocents' day tells us, stand upon Mount Zion with the glorious Lamb of God, with the name of God written upon their foreheads, who shall sing the new song before the throne, who are the first-fruits unto God and to the Lamb, in whose mouth there was never any guile, and who, without fault, are ranged before the throne of God.

And do you not see what this festival of the Holy Innocents ought to teach us? A very large portion of our race die before they have passed the age of infancy. It seems to us very hard that God should take them away in their pretty innocence, and make fond mothers, like the Jewish Rachel, weep for their dead children. But Christ has redeemed them, and they will have their part in that guileless, faultless throng, who sing the new song before the throne of God. For such early deaths, Holy Innocents' day teaches us not to weep, saying to fond [6/7] parents, and to sorrowing brothers and sisters, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, "Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tear, thy children shall come again from the land of thine enemy"--even from the land of the last enemy, death."

I shall now turn to the other holy days of St. Stephen and St. John, to see if they do not teach you something of great importance for you to remember.

These three holy days, St. Stephen's day, St. John the Evangelist's day, and the Holy Innocents' day, set before us three kinds of martyrdom, one or the other of which every true disciple undergoes. A martyr is one who bears witness, and a Christian martyr is usually considered to be one who bears witness to the truth of Christ's religion, even at the point of death. Such a martyr was the first [7/8] martyr, St. Stephen, stoned to death by the Jews a few month after the ascension of our Lord. But St. John was a true witness of Christ, and was, in this sense, a martyr, because he was willing to die, was often threatened with death, and was thrown into a caldron of burning oil, from which he was delivered unharmed, as Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego were from the fiery furnace of king Nebuchadnezzar.

St. Stephen was a martyr, because he was willing to die for Christ is necessary, and did thus actually die for him. St. John was also a martyr because he was willing to die, though God chose that he should serve him in his life rather than by an early death. The Holy Innocents also were martyrs, because, though too young to be either willing or unwilling to die for Christ, they did die on account of Him, and their death bears witness to the truth of his being the Messias.

[9] Some of you may remember the story, in one of your Sunday School books, of a little boy in one of the Western States, who was whipped to death because h would not tell a lie. His name was Emmanuel Dannan, and he is called the boy-martyr. You all admire his Christian heroism, and say, what a noble Christian boy he was. And, I presume, you all feel that you would glory in doing as he did. This little boy was indeed a martyr like St. Stephen. He would not tell a lie because he knew it was a great sin, and he would rather die than displease his Heavenly Father. Such a boy belongs to the noble army of martyrs, of whom we sing in the Te Deum, a praising God with Cherubim and Seraphim in the courts of Heaven.

And now, who would not join this noble army of martyrs. As you read of St. Stephen kneeling down and praying God to forgive [9/10] those who were stoning him to death, and then seeing heaven opened and Jesus ready to receive him; a you think how St. John leaned his head upon the Savior's breast, and how, after a long life of devotion to his Master's service, he was allowed to see such visions of heavenly glory as are recorded in the book of Revelation; when you hear of little Emmanuel Dannan, and think that he is now with St. John, and St. Stephen, and all that glorious multitude who have laid down their lives for Christ, and when, above all, we think of Christ, the chief and king of martyrs, who cam down from heaven to die for us, and when we remember that we are made His soldiers, the children of God, and heirs of His heavenly kingdom, that to each one of us is promised a crown of life, if we are faithful unto death, who does not feel that he would gladly die for Christ? Who does not feel the martyr spirit [10/11] within him? and pant to gain the martyr's reward?

Oh! preserve I beseech you, this martyr's heart, for you will need it in the course of Christian duty that is before you. You will not, probably, have to die to prove yourself a Christian hero; but it is often as difficult to live the martyr's life as to die the martyr's death. You will find it a very hard thing sometimes to be a faithful servant of Christ. It will require a hero's courage always to obey your conscience, and say no to the temptations of the world, and the solicitations of sinful companions. It will call forth all your fortitude to go on in the way of duty sometimes, when it makes you appear singular to your playmates, and perhaps subjects you to contemptuous and unkind remarks. It will cost you many a painful struggle to deny yourself this or that indulgence, or this or that pleasure, in [11/12] which others seem to take delight, and which is attractive to you, but which is likely to do hurt to your Christian character. It will cause you many a contest with yourself, to subdue your angry passions, and when your companions treat you unkindly, to imitate the blessed Savior, who, when he was reviled, reviled not again, and who returned good for evil. And oh! it will be a martyr's achievement, to learn to love your enemies, and to pray for them that abuse you.

But if you can thus learn to be a Christian hero while in youth, you will learn how to live the martyr's life, to die the martyr's death, come when it may, and so to gain the martyr's crown. You will fight the fight of faith, and lay hold on eternal life. You will become a valiant soldier of Christ when you grow up, and help mightily to extend and to build up the kingdom of Christ in the world. And at the [12/13] last, you will receive from your Lord the distinction greater than ever was ever achieved by earthly hero, "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit upon my throne, even as I also overcame and am set down upon my Father's throne."

I have no doubt that some of you have heard of Hannibal, the great Carthaginian hero. About 250 years before the birth of Christ at Jerusalem, Hannibal was born at Carthage, a famous city of Africa, on the southern shore of the Great Sea, called the Mediterranean. His father's name was Hamilcar, who was also a very distinguished general, and as commander in chief of the armies of Carthage for nearly 20 years, did a great deal to extend the power and glory of his country, and to oppose and hinder, though not successfully, the ambitious designs of her enemies, the Romans. When Hannibal was nine years old, his father Hamilcar [13/14] took him, and putting him up upon an altar where sacrifice had just been offered, made him take a solemn oath that he would never be a friend to Rome.

Some of you have read, perhaps, how the noble Hannibal sought to fulfill his vow, to deliver his country from the power of her enemies. How, when he was not yet a young man, he, at the head of his armies, set out towards Rome. How he climbed the Pyrenees mountains, and crossed the deep river Rhone in the face of a large force of the enemy; dragged his war carriages and his camp baggage through the rugged passes, and over the snowy peaks, and down the icy steeps of the Alps. How he gained victory after victory over the best armies of Rome, and slew thousands upon thousands of them on the field of battle, ravaged their country from one end of Italy to the other, and for 15 years held his position almost under the [14/15] very walls of Rome; and if he had been properly supported by his friends at home, it is probably he would have taken the great city, and overthrown forever the mighty Republic of Rome.

We can now imagine the youthful hero, standing upon the altar before the Carthaginian armies, holding his little right hand resolutely towards the sky, and swearing eternal enmity to the enemies of Carthage. And you probably felt your breasts swell with a generous admiration at the bold devotion with which the vow was made, and have been all on his side when he, a young man, began to fulfill it, and have wished him good luck in his long, earnest and untiring efforts to subdue the oppressors of his native land.

But strange as it may seem to you, my youthful hearers, every baptized child is a soldier, and a soldier who has promised as solemnly as [15/16] did the little Hannibal, to be a faithful soldier, and to fight manfully under the banner of our crucified Redeemer. And as beautiful and as noble a sight as it was to see the little son of Hamilcar make the vow of enmity to Rome, a more interesting and impressive sight it is, if we look at it aright, to make a Christian soldier of a little child, and for him and in his name promise a life-long warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and continue Christ's faithful soldier and servant even to the end. A noble youth does Hannibal appear, when at the head of his armies, he sets out to accomplish his vow. But a sublime spectacle it is to see a Christian child striving to overcome temptation, to subdue his temper, to return good for evil, to act day by day as if he remembered that he was the child of God. We admire Hannibal as he resolutely pushes on over the deep rivers and the lofty and dangerous mountains, to carry [16/17] out his promises to be an active enemy to Rome. But a nobler sight it is to find a young solder of Christ struggling to live as a disciple of Christ should, careful to do his duty day by day, and willing to suffer and to labor to show that he loves his blessed savior, who died for him; that he fears to displease his Heavenly Father; that he values his inheritance in the skies above all that this world can offer him; that he would lose or endure anything, rather than fail to gain the kingdom of Heaven. It is a noble thing to labor, to suffer, and even to die, as many of our forefathers did, for our country, but it is a nobler and a more glorious thing to labor and to suffer and to spend our lives in the service of Christ and his Church, for the glory of God and the good of our fellow men, and so to gain the reward, "Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."

[18] Such, dear children, is the spirit of the Christian martyr. May you all be such children of God and such soldiers of Christ, that you may have the boldness of St. Stephen, the loving fidelity of St. John, the child-like innocence of those little ones to whom is promised the kingdom of heaven.

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