A child is born! Angels sing Glory to God in the highest. Shepherds come to adore. Wise men from the East bring expensive gifts.
But then the child grow up. And as he begins to challenge the authorities of his day, he tells his disciples they must do the same. And he warns them that they will be handed over and suffer for his sake.
That is the message we hear in today’s Gospel on this first day after Christmas. Before we’ve even put away the gifts and finished the leftovers from the Christmas feast, we get the message that it’s not all about celebration. Rather, there will be strife and suffering involved in following Christ: “Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”
To reinforce the message, the first Mass reading paired with today’s Gospel is the martyrdom of Stephen. Stephen has been “speaking truth to power”, as the saying goes, reprimanding the elders and the scribes for their “stiff-necked” behavior. The fury and threats of those disquieted by his speech did not deter him, however, for Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit.”
The result is predictable: they “threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.”
Stephen’s last words before dying recall the words of Christ on the cross: “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.” And in the Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus promises that those who are persecuted in his name and endure will be saved. And therin lies the promise. As Thomas Merton once wrote, “Christmas, then, is not just a sweet regression to breast-feeding and infancy. It is a serious and sometimes difficult feast. Difficult especially if, for psychological reasons, we fail to grasp the indestructible kernel of hope that is in it. If we are just looking for a little consolation-we may be disappointed.”