Feast of St. Stephen (transferred)
Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15
Acts 6:8- 7:2a, 51c-60
Today we celebrate the feast of Stephen, the day upon which “Good king Wenceslas went out… when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even”. St. Stephen’s Day is actually the day after Christmas, but we’ve transferred it to today. It’s a feast that sits awkwardly in a festive time of year that is otherwise so sugar plummed and Santa-fied, jingled and jangled, tinseled and tangled. The martyrdom of Stephen is our reality check–we go from glory to gory in this “snap out of it” shift. We are reminded that we live “in the meantime”—and the times can be mean.
Christmas is, of course, a celebration of the Incarnation, the birth of God’s own being into this world. It is a festival of life and light: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” [John 1:3-4] We are the continuing presence of this Incarnation in the world, we are the “Body of Christ”, as Paul puts it. We are in him, he is in us, as John puts it. We are the bearers of his light, we are the God bearers, the Christ bearers in this world. We are now his hands, his feet, his eyes in the world, as St. Teresa put it. “Christ has no hands now but yours…,” she reminds us.We give witness to these things and more as Christians in this world. And as we know all too well, it gets complicated giving witness to Christ’s life, his light, his love, his grace, his truth. We live in a world in many ways opposed to these very things: a world of threatening darkness, sometimes seeming to be at the very brink of the abyss. But, as the Gospel of John assures us, the light does shine in the darkness and the darkness does not overwhelm it [John 1:5]. However close to unraveling we seem to be at times, the light of Christ shines on–if not always perceptibly.
Among other difficult realities these days is that we live in an age of martyrs—we thought we were past all that. We remember especially Christians in the Middle East and Africa. And we remember that the consecrated wine we receive in the Eucharist is sacramentally united to the precious blood of these men, women and children.
And we are aware that countless Muslims have been caught up in the violence of one kind of Muslim against others. And it’s still possible to be killed simply for being Jewish. Although the offspring of Abraham are to be a blessing to all people, it is still possible for Jews to be killed for being Jewish, Christians to be killed for being Christian, and Muslims to be killed for being Muslim—or the wrong kind of Muslim.
And, yet, the light still shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overwhelm it. We can all be witness to that light, each in his or her own way. “Witness” is what “martyr” means—a martyr is a witness. We usually reserve the word “martyr” for those whose witness has cost them their lives. And perhaps that’s best, as a way of honoring those who have given “the last full measure of devotion”, as Lincoln put it [Gettysburg Address].
But we are all witnesses, witnesses to something—whether we choose to be or whether we are even aware of it. Because we are embodied creatures, incarnate human beings, all we are, all we say and do, even what we think and feel give witness to something: whatever we are as human beings “speaks” to others–often more eloquently than our words. We are constantly, consciously or not, signaling what we value, what we think is important. Those around us are constantly “reading” these signals.
To be a Christian witness is to consciously, intentionally signal to the world what we believe to be important. It is “to preach the gospel at all times, using words if necessary”, to paraphrase St. Francis. Our Christian witness is not likely to cost us our lives, although that is within the realm of possibility.
Our witness as Christians may not cost us our lives, but it will cost us something. It could cost us professional advancement or the loss of friendships. It could alienate us from family. It could cost us a loss of status or income potential or power. It could cost us our physical well-being. Or it could be something else. Whatever it is, there is a cost to be born, a cross to be born, to be witness to the light in a world of shadows and darkness.
Our witness could be very heroic, like providing medical services in remote and dangerous places of the world. Or speaking truth to power in toxic political climates. Or giving of our resources to the very limits of our means. It could be teaching in an inner city school instead of the suburbs. It could be refusing to collaborate in some dishonest business practice. It could be paying employees a salary they can actually live on. It could be just speaking up when someone needs to speak up—perhaps championing the underdog. It could be actually talking about Jesus to someone you don’t know!
Whatever it is, it will cost us. We might even suspect that if our Christian witness is not costing us something, we may not yet have reached our fullpotential as witnesses to the light of Christ. And, we have to admit, some days it may be very dispiriting to bear the weight of this cost.
Stephen’s martyrdom abruptly thrusts the mystery of the Cross into our path, right into the midst of the caroling and gingerbread, the jingle and the jangle, the tinsel and tangle of Christmastide. But we remember that God’s response to Stephen’s cross and to all our crosses is the glorious alleluia of Resurrection.
We shall know—and we shall come to know unequivocally in that Easter brightness, that the darkness does not overwhelm the light. In the celebration of the Incarnation we but set out on the way, pondering the deep and mysterious wonder not only of Christ’s birth, but of our own, making our way toward—making our way into–the mystery of death and Resurrection. We set out on our way to Easter morning, sometimes walking in shadows and deep darkness, yet always illumined by the one light that can never be extinguished.
May his holy name be praised—and blessed are we who come in the name of this greatest of lights. May it be into his loving hands that we commend our spirits.
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