St. Stephen today

The second day of Christmas sees the celebration of St. Stephen, one of the Church’s first deacons and the first martyr. Every year on December 26 the Holy Father recites the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square and gives an address to the assembled crowd, as he does on all Sundays and Holydays outside of the Easter Season (which is when the Regina Caeli prayer replaces it. In a parallel to December 26, on Easter Monday the pope also recites the Regina Caeli and makes a speech from the window of the Apostolic Palace).

Last year Pope Francis discussed the context of the martyr’s feast during the Christmas season. “[O]n this second day of the octave, the feast of St. Stephen is inserted into the joy of Christmas. The book of the Acts of the Apostles presents him to us as ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’ (6:5). And it tells us about his martyrdom, when after a fiery dispute that aroused the anger of the members of the Sanhedrin, he was dragged outside the city walls and stoned. Stephen dies like Jesus, asking pardon for those who killed him (7:55-60). 

In the joyful atmosphere of Christmas, this commemoration may seem out of place. For Christmas is the celebration of life and it fills us with sentiments of serenity and peace. Why disturb the charm with the memory of such atrocious violence? In reality, from the perspective of faith, the feast of St. Stephen is in full harmony with the deeper meaning of Christmas. In martyrdom, in fact, violence is conquered by love, death by life. The Church sees in the sacrifice of the martyrs their ‘birth into Heaven.’ Therefore, today we celebrate the ‘birth’ of Stephen, which in its depths springs from the Birth of Christ. Jesus transforms the death of those who love Him into a dawn of new life!”

This year, from the slaughters of the students and staff at school in Peshawar, Pakistan to the killing of innocent policemen in this country, from the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and too many other places, to the continuing racial strife in our own land, we need not just “a little Christmas,” but rather we need to see how Jesus is truly walking with us in all of these situations (and what He wants us fellow walkers to do).

Pope Francis was frank last year, with a message that still resonates with our present reality. “In the martyrdom of Stephen [we see] the same confrontation between good and evil, between hatred and forgiveness, between meekness and violence, which culminated in the Cross of Christ. Thus, the remembrance of the first martyr immediately dispels a false image of Christmas: the fairy tale, sugarcoated image, which is not in the Gospel! The Liturgy brings us back to the authentic meaning of the Incarnation, by linking Bethlehem to Calvary and by reminding us that the Divine Salvation involved the battle against sin, it passes through the narrow door of the cross. This is the path which Jesus clearly indicated to His disciples, as today’s Gospel attests: ‘You will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved’ (Mt 10:22).”

That message is not the saccharine stuff we get in a lot of Christmas songs (which are probably hard to find on the radio at this point, now that the secular world has decided that Christmas is over, while we Catholics say that it has only just begun. So, they have reburied Karen Carpenter and Bing Crosby, while we are called to recognize the Risen One everywhere in the midst of the celebration of His birth). Christmas, together with Easter (without Easter, Christmas would be pointless), reminds us that God entered into a world of injustice and took that injustice upon Himself. He made Himself one with the outcasts, not with the powerful.

Last December 26, Pope Francis said, “[T]oday we pray especially for the Christians who are discriminated against on account of the witness they bear to Christ and to the Gospel. Let us remain close to these brothers and sisters who, like St. Stephen, are unjustly accused and made the objects of various kinds of violence. Unfortunately, I am sure they are more numerous today than in the early days of the Church. There are so many! This occurs especially where religious freedom is still not guaranteed or fully realized. However, it also happens in countries and areas where on paper freedom and human rights are protected, but where in fact believers, and especially Christians, face restrictions and discrimination. I would like to ask you to take a moment in silence to pray for these brothers and sisters and let us entrust them to Our Lady. This comes as no surprise to a Christian, for Jesus foretold it as a propitious occasion to bear witness. Still, on a civil level, injustice must be denounced and eliminated.”

In his remarks, the pope was speaking against physical violence and killing of Christians and against the subtle (or not too subtle) discrimination that Christians face in the Western world, including our own country. Our goal is not oppression, but conversion (of our enemies and of ourselves). Pope Francis concluded his remarks a year ago with this challenge, “May Mary Queen of Martyrs help us to live Christmas with the ardor of faith and love which shone forth in St. Stephen and in all of the martyrs of the Church.”

St. Stephen’s prayers for his persecutors were effective. One of the people there, running a type of “cloak-check” (apparently stoning people to death builds up a sweat), was Saul. Stephen prayed for him that day and continued to pray for him in Heaven. On the road to Damascus a short while later that prayer bore fruit and Saul began his conversion into becoming St. Paul. St. Fulgentius of Ruspe wrote about Stephen: “His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment.” May we grow in that same type of love.

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