In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, blessings, and peace, as we celebrate the Feast of Saint Stephen, Deacon and Martyr. It may seem jarring initially that we commemorate the first to be killed in response to his unswerving faith in Christ Jesus, when just yesterday we focused on the Nativity of Our Lord. The soulful sentiment of “Silent Night,” the joyous proclamation of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” whether reserved or rapturous, dignified or enthusiastic, Christmas is a celebration of new life triumphing over the hostility of our world. The Christmas Joy so clearly intends to ripple outward from that first night in a manger and to carry back to the Christ Child all of those who, like the Shepherds and the Wise Men, have placed their hope and their faith in God above everything else. The unambiguous message here is that life and love prevail and that “Peace on Earth, Good Will towards Men” can be so much more than a pretty sentiment. All the good tidings seeded by Christmas seem as if ripped out of the soil and tossed aside, when just a day later we are compelled to remember innocent blood shed by a ravenous mob. In a way, it is as if Christmas has been aborted, cut down from its potential in midstream, and replaced with a scene of passion and murder all too familiar to our history. In the end, what is jarring is not that the Biblical accounts of Our Lord’s birth and of Saint Stephen’s death are so different from each other. Rather, it is that in our fallen world the former leads inexorably to the latter. What starts off as hopeful, peaceful, resplendent with God’s glory, succumbs in time to the savage excesses of a mob. If the Incarnation of God in the Christ Child reminds us that our future destiny is to be alive into eternity in God, the martyrdom of an innocent witness to the faith reminds us that, in our fallen world, there is a price to be paid for our fidelity to that Christmas Miracle. Our white and gold Altar linens and Priest’s vestments will give way to red soon enough, and until Heaven and Earth give way to the Father’s Kingdom there will never be a way completely to avoid that.
The persistence of irrational hatred, violence, and death suggests that the Christmas Miracle is a fraud, or at least is not up to the task of replacing the darkness of our world with God’s Light. For the faithful this is an intellectual hurdle to be overcome. For if the Christmas Miracle indeed is a fraud, or is not up to the task, then we shall consign it to that portion of our mind and heart where we store harmless fables and children’s stories. We may not reject the Christmas Miracle formally; but likely we shall reject it practically, like we do other ancient stories or customs that we readily agree are “good ideas,” but not all that relevant to how we actually live out our lives. When considering an apparent conundrum, very often the best way to move forward is to think upon the matter from a different perspective. Instead of focusing upon the persistence of sin in the world, notwithstanding the Christmas Miracle, a different perspective is to focus upon how the faithful can respond to sin in a way that augments, rather than detracts from, the Christmas Miracle. Perhaps, the Miracle is not that the world has been changed but that the faithful have been refashioned in Christ Jesus for a New World. Perhaps, the Miracle is not what the world is able to do to us, but how in Christ Jesus we can respond to the world. On this specific point, the martyrdom of Saint Stephen is illustrative. Pope Benedict XIV writes: “The deep bond that links Christ to His first martyr, Stephen, is divine charity – the very same love which impelled the Son of God to empty Himself and to make Himself obedient unto death on a cross. It is necessary to notice this distinctive feature of Christian martyrdom. It is exclusively an act of love for God and for man, including persecutors.” What matters then is not that sin and death persist, even after the Christmas Miracle, but that the faithful like Saint Stephen can respond to the world with the same charity with which God responded to the world. That we may die as a witness to the faith is our victory, even if the world does not noticeably change for the better as a result of our own sacrifice, for in that instance we shall die as Christ died and, therefore, be like Him. This is made clear in the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Like Christ Jesus, he is accused of blasphemy, declares the truth in spite of the mob pressing for his death, and prays for the Father to forgive the mob even as he is about to die. He sees Christ Jesus standing upon the right hand of God, because in responding to the world as Christ Jesus had responded Stephen is taking on that likeness to God that Adam had squandered. He is being reborn in Christ Jesus, and so at the end he is no longer seeing reality through a glass, darkly, but rather seeing God with the same eye as God sees him. As God is born among men in the Nativity of Our Lord, so in the case of Stephen do we see how men may be reborn into God. The martyrdom of Saint Stephen in fact does not abort the good tidings of Christmas, even if that seems to be the case on the surface. Rather, his martyrdom is a sign to us that the Nativity of Our Lord is really about our nativity in Our Lord. The birth of Our Lord is really about our rebirth in Our Lord. Christmas is joyous, for if we are faithful to Our Lord even unto death, then it becomes our Christmas as much as Our Lord’s Christmas.
Christian martyrdom is holy, not because of the pain and the suffering endured, but because of the overriding will to be like Christ Jesus. As Saint Augustine explains, “It is not the pain but the purpose that makes a martyr.” We call attention to the people like Saint Stephen who gave the ultimate sacrifice to remain steadfast with the Lord. Nevertheless, since it is the purpose to live wholly for Christ Jesus that really makes a martyr, we should be mindful that there are unsung heroes for Christ in every generation who may not die at the hands of persecutors but who are as blessed as the men and women who do. The point is that we can die to the fallen world, and be made acceptable through Christ Jesus for the Father’s Kingdom, in ways that have nothing to do with the death of our physical bodies. The heroic Christians are not just those whose earthly likenesses have been reproduced in stained glass. They include the everyday folks who sacrifice their own careers to be caregivers for sick or disabled relatives; the parents who take into their homes and offer charitable love and attention to at risk foster children; the tutors who spend a lot of their own time and money in teaching the Bible to children who otherwise would have no exposure to God’s Word. The best way to commemorate the ultimate sacrifice made by martyrs like Stephen is to see how their examples of fidelity to Christ Jesus may be incorporated into all that we do in our normal lives. God invites all Christians to be heroes for Christ. Brethren, let us pray for the grace to be martyrs unto this fallen world in all that we say and do, so that by faith we may come to see Christmas as our season in Christ, as much as it is a commemoration of His Incarnation unto us. This is what Saint Stephen came to see, and this is what we shall see also, if we live out our lives wholly for the Lord.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.