As we continue the celebration of Jesus’ birth, we are also to honor the Church’s first saint and martyr – St. Stephen. What a telling reminder of the necessity of suffering, not only for the Christ, but also for his followers.
St. Stephen’s Legacy
Stephen was a Hellenist, of Greek ancestry, living in Jerusalem as an early deacon. He was called upon to help administer the common-wealth of the early Christian church, after the Hellenistic widows complained that they were not given a fair share of the Church’s offerings. Stephen became a forceful missionary to convert Jewish priests, proclaiming powerfully that the New Covenant outweighed the old law of the Jews. For this he earned the crown of martyrdom, through a most violent death – by stoning. He died in the year 35, just two years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Ironically, the name Stephen in Greek means crown.
Stephen’s ministry involved both preaching and caring for the poor. In his person we see the perfect balance of Christian ministry. You can read all about Stephen in these two chapters of Acts. At Stephen’s death is also where we first meet Saul, who would become St. Paul, the most powerful advocate of the faith in the ancient world.
No doubt Stephen’s sacrifice provided an even greater witness, and, as we know, the Church was built by the blood of the martyrs. This reminds us that the Christian life should involve witness, care for the poor and sacrifice. St. Stephen provides us with a full model of all we are to do and expect if we live out our Christian life fully committed.
The Message in our Lives?
It is not likely that any of us will suffer death by stoning. Our martyrdoms are less likely to be bloody, but we are all called to sacrifice. What have you experienced this season?
The de-Christianization of Christmas causes me deep discouragement. On the way to midnight Mass we could not even find Christmas carols on the radio, though countless stations played secularized Christmas music. The take-over of a most central Christian celebration to watered-down winter holiday festivities is a quiet kind of martyrdom for Christian witness. How small the voice of the babe in the manger has become amidst our loud secular culture.
We are to make witness, but sometimes it is hard to even see where. The pressure mounts not to make others “feel uncomfortable” in how we express our faith. This is an even more subtle and invasive marginalizing of Christ at Christmas. It forces a new round of underground Church, one psychologically forced under the surface of daily discourse. It’s a new kind of underground Church that moves about in the midst of the dominant, secular culture.
Yet, make your witness, however quiet or small. Continue to support the Church’s ongoing care for the poor. Rely on the Holy Spirit to guide your witness in the world.
And what better message of Christmas, but that this continues for Catholics. We’re only at day 2 of Christmas, with 10 more to go. Continue to celebrate fully. Go to Mass as often as you can. Pull in the family for Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. Pray the Angelus, at least at noon, but consider adding in 6 am and 6 pm. Sing Christmas carols.
Keep the Christmas lights shining brightly, both outwardly and through your spirit shared to others. Sing the 12 Days of Christmas, and reflect on the meaning of each verse with an opportunity to teach catechesis, and remember when the Church was outlawed in Elizabethan England, and this simple song provided a clandestine way of teaching Catholic principles.
Pray for opportunities to witness, and encourage the resurgence of Christ in a world in retreat from the Truth. May your Christmas blessings continue. Plan something special to do as a family to honor each of these 12 days.