The gates of heaven were opened for blessed Stephen, who was found to be first among the Martyrs and therefore is crowned triumphant in heaven. – Entrance Antiphon for the feast of St. Stephen
After midnight, in the first moments of Christmas, I stood before the altar clothed in white to celebrate the coming of our king. Today, I stood at the same altar covered in red, the blood of the martyrs. December 26th is St. Stephen’s day. There were no new faces in the congregation this morning. Five of us, mostly mature in years, gathered to remember Stephen. I watched many of them struggle up to the high altar to receive the bread and wine. The twelve days of Christmas had begun in earnest.
Culture has the Christmas season upside down. It does not lead up to December 25 and then exhaust itself with the last batch of cookies. Christmas is not a mere moment to be consumed before moving on to the next opportunity for the market to take our money and pander to our sentiments. For the Christian, the Christmas season flows from December 25, and the first thing the church speaks to us about during Christmastide is a martyr.
In the few moments I could spare for a homily, I reflected on how remembering the death of Stephen helps us recall what the child king wrought. The child became the man who died for our sins. This man is also the God incarnate who could not be contained by death. Now death no longer causes us fear. Stephen, unafraid, dying with same words of forgiveness uttered by Jesus is an exegesis of Christmas:
“I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him…While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died (Luke 7:59–60).
Every year Christians talk about keeping Christ in Christmas. We complain about Christmas music during advent. We shake our heads in wonder at the churches that refuse to hold services on Christmas day itself, opting instead to present the Christmas day as an moment for family. I have an even more radical idea than having Christmas services on Christmas day. How about churches recover all twelve days of Christmas including the feasts that follow on from Christmas tide. I contend that St Stephen’s Feast might go a long way towards helping us appreciate wonderful change the incarnation effected in the world, transforming death itself into an occasion for rejoicing.
Prayer for St Stephen’s day:
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.