Christmas and Martyrdom: St. Stephen’s Day

Happy second day of Christmas! And happy St. Stephen’s Day.

Icon of St. Stephen.

Icon of St. Stephen.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was also a deacon, one of seven chosen and ordained by the twelve Apostles to serve those in need. He also preached and “worked wonders,” which made him some very powerful enemies. Accused of blasphemy, he was stoned to death. You can read his full story in Acts chapters 6-7. Today, the Church commemorates him, and, in particular, his violent end.

It’s the day after Christmas, the second of the twelve days of Christmas. We’ve just welcomed the Christ child, marveled at the mystery of God becoming human. Most of us have domestic messes to clean up—dishes, gift wrap, laundry, and so forth—and are tired but happy, full of good food, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and magi. Suddenly, we’re confronted with the memory of violent death: not of the babies slaughtered by Herod (that’s the day after tomorrow), but of the martyrdom of a Christian who preached Christ crucified and resurrected, and who saw, just before he died, a vision of Jesus seated at God’s right hand. That’s quite a leap in the story! It seems a strange juxtaposition.

But it’s actually what Christmas is about. Mary’s “Magnificat” had predicted that the birth of her son would turn the world upside down. The world, however, doesn’t turn upside down without a fight.

God appearing among us, in our flesh, participating in our birth and in our death, is an invitation for us to be reborn into Christ and to participate in his death. Thankfully, most of us won’t be required to face martyrdom; but we are invited to die to our selves and to our own ambitions because we are called to something better. When St. Stephen had his vision of Christ enthroned, he was seeing the end result of the Incarnation: human nature, and with it, all creation, taken into the very heart of the Triune God. In the baby Jesus, the Word of God became human. He has never stopped being human. What he is—what St. Stephen saw—is God’s design for us all: to dwell intimately with God in perfect union, not dissolved into an impersonal oneness or reabsorbed into our source, but joined to our maker in the most beautiful unity-in-diversity.

That was, in fact, the goal all along. In the Incarnation, we see that God created the cosmos in order to dwell in it and to unite it to Godself in love. The Incarnation was no “Plan B” resulting from human sin. It was God’s intention all along, the very purpose of creation. Knowing that frees us from our own little lives that end with our individual, self-shattering deaths. That freedom allowed St. Stephen not only to accept death, but to forgive those who participated in his murder in any way (among them, the future St. Paul, who guarded the coats of those doing the actual stoning).

Holy Stephen, pray for us, that we may share your vision of Christ exalted, and so gain the freedom to die to our small selves and receive with you the life of the one whose birth we continue to celebrate these twelve days of Christmas.

A brief Advent reflection

Advent’s just begun.

Ordinary Time closed with a celebration of Christ the King; now we’re waiting for that King to be born…while at the same time, looking for him to “come again in glory.” Even while Christmas preparations must be done, we hold those celebrations at bay during this strange season of remembering the eschaton and anticipating Christ’s birth 2,000-some years ago, all while continuing to meet his Real Presence in the Sacrament at every Mass we attend. Advent is “timey-wimey,” as the Doctor might put it:

Well, in the Church, we usually use the phrase, “already and not yet,” but it’s a similar idea.

The entire Church year, in fact, is like this—not just Advent. When we walk the Way of the Cross with Christ during Holy Week, we’re also busy preparing for Easter celebrations, while celebrating the Eucharist before, on, and after Maundy Thursday. We know that Christ was born, lived, died, rose again, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, but we mark the days of our year in ways that combine memory, anticipation, presence, longing, and participation in ways that allow us to find, afresh, our own place in the story, year after year. We sound the depths of the traditions, which have accrued and continue to grow through the centuries, and find that they echo back our own longing, fear, joy, pain, faith, doubt—whatever we might be experiencing right now. We have the opportunity to put our lives as they are this year in conversation with that story which is both historic and eternal, the story of the One who was, and is, and will be.

Blessed Advent. May the mysteries we ponder with Mary resonate in our lives throughout the coming year.

Annunciatory Angel, Fra Angelico, c. 1450-1455. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Annunciatory Angel, Fra Angelico, c. 1450-1455. Detroit Institute of Arts.

PS: I’d be remiss not to mention that today, Detroit’s application for bankruptcy protection was approved by a judge. I ask for your prayers for the city and its residents, as well as the surrounding region, and for wisdom and a spirit of servanthood in the leaders who will be hashing out a plan going forward. For more information:

USA Today’s report, which gives a general overview of today’s news on the subject.

Huffington Post’s report centering on the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collections.

The Nation’s report, which considers the really bad precedent(s) that could come out of this.