Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr
Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59
The celebration of the feast of the Church’s first martyr, St. Stephen, on the day following Christmas always struck me as a real "downer." The wonderful images of the nativity and shepherds hearing angel hymns and kings following a distant star all seem to come to an abrupt and shocking end in today’s scripture readings. From the Acts of the Apostles, we read of the violent response of those who simply could not accept the preaching of Stephen, which is exactly what Jesus warned about in today’s Gospel: "Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Beware of men, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues….’"
But if we take seriously the Incarnation – God made human – then this feast coming on the heels of Christmas makes more sense. The Incarnation matters. It has consequences in our lives if we truly believe the Christmas story. It calls us to live our faith in concrete ways that will not always be understood or appreciated. Stephen was a man of deep faith. He was one of the first seven deacons appointed by the apostles to serve the community, especially those who were poor and neglected. He took seriously the Incarnation.
While the image associated with this feast is the gruesome stoning of Stephen, his was a life of service, even to the very end when he prays the Lord to receive his spirit. While few of us will be asked to give up our lives in martyrdom, we are asked to give up our lives in self-less service, perhaps its own kind of martyrdom. The traditional Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslaus" (circa 1850) associates the charitable work of King (and Saint) Wenceslaus of Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) with this feast day. We rarely get beyond the first stanza, but the carol ends with a very important message about living our faith (it’s okay to hum along):
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even…
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing
Even the traditional "Boxing Day" celebrated in Great Britain and its various commonwealths roots itself in caring for servants and those in need or less fortunate by boxing up needed food, clothes and gifts on the day after Christmas.
If we celebrate the gift of God’s love made incarnate on Christmas Day, then celebrating the feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr, a day later makes sense after all. He lived his life believing that the Incarnation really does matter.
Robert Hotz is a consultant with American City Bureau, Inc. and is the Director of The Passion of Christ: The Love That Compels Campaign for Holy Cross Province.