Posted by: matt25 | December 26, 2016

Saint Stephen, Christmas Continues

If you are a Christian, Christmas is kind of a big deal.   It is big day  but it is too big a deal to be contained to a single day.  We embrace it for an entire season of time to allow it to permeate our lives and become an essential and foundational part of who we are.  

The first eight days, the Octave of Christmas will culminate with the Solemnity of Mary, The Holy Mother of God, but today within the two bookends of the octave we celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Stephen.  This is a day of special interest to me as, after the Ascension of Our Lord, Stephen was chosen one of the seven first deacons. The ministry of the seven was very fruitful; but Stephen especially, “full of grace and fortitude, did great wonders and signs among the people.”  So inevitably he was brought before the Sanhedrim, charged, like Jesus, with blasphemy against Moses and against God. He boldly upbraided the chief priests with their hard-hearted resistance to the Holy Ghost and with the murder of the “Just One.” They were stung with anger, and gnashed their teeth against him. But when, “filled with the Holy Spirit and looking up to heaven, he cried out, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God,’ they rushed upon him, and dragging him forth without the city, they stoned him to death.”

The Gospel for today however addresses all of us and tells us, you and I and every other Christian, to expect persecution.  

But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans.  When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say.  For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.  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, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.  MATTHEW 10:17-22   

Why do we celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen?  Why do we embrace a Gospel tells us to expect persecution?  We can find our answer primarily in the love and sacrifice of Jesus himself, but also in many other ways.  We understand intuitively that out of love, we would die in place of someone dear to us if it was our call to make.  Furthermore, we know that our faith teaches us that physical death is the portal to eternal life.  But, we can also look to The Sacred Scriptures where martyrs like Stephen are witnesses who have given their lives for the faith, participating in the bloody death of Jesus himself. They are part of the great chorus that gives praise to Christ in heaven. The Lamb has become their shepherd leading them to springs of life giving water. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 21:4

This ultimate hope is one held out for us in God’s definitive future. But a terrible price was paid, and a terrible war was waged. Their robes of the persecuted martyrs are washed clean, but in the blood of the Lamb. And the war continues to be waged, for the presence of martyrdom up and down the ages, continues to the present day. In fact, the twentieth was the Christian century with the most martyrs ever, in fact more than all the other centuries combined. The most persecuted religion on planet earth today is Christianity.  

So Christmas and Christianity continues not because of family gatherings with their decorations, gifts and food, but because we are adopted into the family of God, given the great gift of the Incarnation, and the meal of thanksgiving, Eucharist, which is the center of our faith sending us forth to embrace the world becoming light to dispel the darkness.

St Stephen, pray for us.

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