Saint for the day: Stephen – “Protomartyr” (d. c. 36)
Acts 6:8-10; 754-50 – Psalm 31 – Matthew 10:17-22
“As the crowd was stoning Stephen, he, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.” (Acts 7:55ff)
Some might ask the question, “Why does the Church jump so quickly from Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to the brutal martyrdom of Stephen? Can’t you let us enjoy a little more time with this cute, little baby born in a stable?”
My answer to this is the fact that Bethlehem and Calvary are the two “bookends” of the reality of why God became incarnate in our world. If we look at one of the familiar images of the nativity we often see the “cute” little Jesus laying in the straw with his arms outstretched in loving welcome. But the reality of this is that it’s just a slight move of His arms out just a little more to give us the image of Jesus on the Cross. Most of us are happier to stay with a “little baby, Jesus” than to so quickly be thinking about Calvary and death on a cross. That’s probably why the Church puts this “feast” of the martyrdom of Stephen right next to the commemoration of the birth of Jesus.
Whenever I’m giving a talk to novices – those who are just beginning their journey in religious life – I quote a passage from the OT book of Ecclesiasticus (2:1ff), “… if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal!” Then it goes on to say, “cling to Him and never waiver and you will not be bulked of your reward.” Read a little more of those verses on your own and you’ll get a good model of what following Jesus is all about.
“Cling to Him…” Keep your eyes on Jesus. Not just on the little baby in the manger, but Jesus, standing at the right hand of the Father in Glory. Then let your mind fill in all the gaps between the manger and the cross: all those images of what Jesus’ life was all about. All the healings and all the words; the warnings and all the promises. It’s then that we can say, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “were not our hearts burning as he made the scriptures come alive for us?” This is what gave St. Stephen that “glowing countenance” as he was about to be stoned to death. This is the lesson that the Church wants us to remember on this “First day of Christmas.” And this message will continue in the feasts that follow so that all of us can see examples of how others, who are called “saints” have won their crowns. Amen!