I always find it a bit jarring to wake up the morning after Christmas, open my Magnificat and remember that today is the feast of St. Stephen. Still full of Christmas cheer, we celebrate the the first of the Christian martyrs.
Although it may be a bit jarring, it is also fitting that we follow Christmas by remembering Stephen. In so doing, we remind ourselves that the Incarnation is part of a larger story. The opening act is birth, but the story doesn’t end with the angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” or the wise men bringing their gifts. Instead, birth is followed inexorably by a horrible death and by resurrection, such that Christmas never stands alone, but is always joined inextricably with Good Friday and Easter Sunday. 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.”
Celebrating Stephen reminds us the the narrative of birth, death and resurrection is not just that of Jesus, but of all of us. In the first reading for Mass today from the Acts of the Apostles, 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.
Stephen patterned his life on that of Christ. We are invited to do the same so that we, too, may share in full story of Christ, which ends in resurrection.
In today’s first Mass reading from Acts, we hear of the martyrdom of St. Stephen. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen chastises the “stiff-necked people” for their persecution of the prophets and speaks to them of his vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Infuriated, they rush upon Stephen, throw him out of the city and stone him. As they were stoning him, Stephen, mirroring some of Jesus’ last words on the cross, cries out “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
It is the second of those statements that I always react most strongly to, and I am filled with admiration and awe that at the moment of his death, Stephen expresses concern for the forgiveness by God of those who are executing him. It is an act of love I don’t always live up to. When people commit far less grave sins against me, I confess that my first reaction often has to do with “poor me” and my mind doesn’t always jump so quicly (or at all) to asking God to forgive them their sins.
Each time we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Let us also pray for the grace to forgive as Stephen (and Christ) forgave.
Lest we forget that the Incarnation of Christ is intimately linked to His death and resurrection, on this day after Christmas we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church.
We are told in the Acts of the Apostles that Stephen was “filled with grace and power” as he preached. His words angered some and they “threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.” Twice, Stephen echoes Christ’s words on the cross, first crying out to the Lord to receive his spirit and then asking God to forgive those who are killing him.
The Incarnation begins the incredible act of God’s love that finds its completion in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christ gives himself to us completely, and so Stephen before his death can triumphantly announce “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” There stands the Son of God, though whom Stephen, and all of us, will live forever.