St Stephen the Martyr is seen in this mural in the Vatican. CNS photo

Q: The Holy Innocents were killed soon after Jesus’ birth. May I know why is St Stephen regarded as the first martyr instead of the Holy Innocents?  – Edwina Prabha D’Cruz

A: Your observation is astute. Indeed, St Stephen is regarded as the protomartyr (first martyr) and the feast of the Holy Innocents is always celebrated on the first Monday after that.

To be sure, there is no historical data to tell us the exact date of St Stephen’s death, and for that matter, neither do we have any dates for the deaths of the innocent infants killed by the murderous decree of Herod. 
The only difference between the deaths of St Stephen and the innocent children is that St Stephen died and was a martyr by his free will, blood and love, whilst those of the children were by their blood alone.  

It is thus most likely that because love at its purest and most selfless is demonstrated when there is a full knowledge coupled with a full willingness to give of oneself, that the Church deems that St Stephen is the first after Jesus’ death to die a true martyr’s death, and that he gets the honour of being hailed as the protomartyr.  

It certainly doesn’t dilute nor nullify the value of the lives of those infants who died in place of the infant Jesus.  

At the heart of the celebration of any martyr’s feast day is the importance not of who is the first martyr, but that we take them as examples so that we can die to ourselves and our sinfulness out of our love for the Lord.  

While not all of us are called to die a martyr’s death by the shedding of our blood, know that each time we die to sin and to our egos, we are able to unite our little deaths with their great deaths, allowing us to make those precious positive steps towards eternal life when our lives on this earth finally end.

Fr Luke Fong