You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it. (Acts 7:53)
The second Day of Christmas commemorates the life and witness of St. Stephen, the first martyr for the Christian faith (martyrdom in all its dimensions, including faithfulness unto death at the hands of others). This may seem odd to those whose understanding of Christianity is drawn largely from secular or sentimental sources, but those who live the Gospel with any degree of seriousness will understand its significance with little guidance.
What we know about St. Stephen we know from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. He was likely a Hellenistic Jew who had accepted Jesus as Messiah. He was numbered amongst the first deacons of the Church, and his servant ministry helped heal an early breech in the Christian community (there goes the idea that Christianity is always an untroubled picture of easy-going disciples!).
St. Stephen was also a gifted and fiery speaker. His command of the Biblical narrative, as St. Luke reports it in Acts, was magnificent. He combined this gift with the fearlessness of being a truth-teller for God (not for his own ego’s purposes…a vastly different matter and frankly rather rare amongst many self-appointed truth-tellers in the news). All of this together made him a formidable character and a real threat to the religious status quo.
Stephen’s ministry culminates in a recitation of Salvation history before the Sanhedrin, often sculpted in such a way as to drive home a central charge of unfaithfulness and contempt among the religious leadership specifically, and the Jewish people in general. His denunciation of their culture of sin comes to rest with the above-quoted indictment. Such self-criticism is perhaps the hardest kind to hear, as the usual recourse to “blaming the outsider” becomes impossible. In every age, anyone willing to tell truth this way is liable to rejection and even destruction.
The leadership and commoners join together in an unlawful action of mob “justice,” and after condemning him, stone St. Stephen to death. In the midst of this tumultuous scene, he is granted a vision of the Messiah he loved and served, allowing him to summon the courage and mercy to forgive his killers in the very act of murder. It is a kind of miniature Passion, death, and resurrection (at least in embryonic form) of Christ-applied-to-the-disciple.
Aside from making clear the distinction between true Christian martyrdom (where a righteous person, called by God, lives authentically the Gospel of Christ to the point of being killed for it) and some other false types of “martyrdom” encountered in this world, the story of St. Stephen is an absolute call for us to forgive our persecutors. This marks a decisive difference between Christianity and the world around us, and is only possible if we have deeply internalized the Gospel message and are living more and more “in Christ,” as St. Paul puts it.
St. Stephen’s day is also a day to recommit to telling the “Gospel truth” in life, rather than keep mum, assent, or cooperate with evil and lies. This applies to societal wrongs and personal sinfulness.
Right now in the Episcopal Church, and much American Christianity, there is a tendency to focus on the reform of social structures apart from the reform of the human heart. Our emphasis goes on public ills (and of course it must), but often without the patient and careful teaching about those private ills that make societal injustice not only possible but sustainable.
In St. Stephen we see the pattern for how disciples follow Jesus’ commandment to love God and our neighbor—by telling the truth not from our own anger but from God’s righteousness. That same righteousness must be applied to our own inner life and the world around us. Only when that consistency is applied and observed is the Gospel really being put into action. Without it, we turn a blind eye to some aspect of what God calls us to be or do in bringing forth the Kingdom.
All of this relates to Christmas quite naturally. Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel—God with us. For God to be with us means to extinguish the culture of sin, a culture we often expect and accept both within and around us. For God to be truly with us means a direct confrontation with that culture, this idolatry. The three Feasts after Christmas Day (St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents) each reflect some aspect of that confrontation.
There is no sentimentality here. The Church’s Calendar was established before sentiment became a valid category for Christians to indulge in with regard to the essentials of faith (thanks be to God). This makes the Calendar both very powerful as a tool for teaching the faith—and at times remote from current consumer culture.
Thankfully, the Truth from Above will long outlast and outshine our current cultural preoccupations. The Grace of God provides both the tenderness and the impulse needed to glorify the Christ-child in our current day, within our hearts and homes as well as the civic forum. The life and words of St. Stephen show us one aspect of what it truly means to celebrate Christmas as a fact of life and not just a fleeting season. So, speak truth in love, and join the great Protomartyr in glorifying the Messiah in every aspect of your life, for God is With Us!
Collect for the Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartyr
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
A Collect for Christmastide
Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.