Secular culture began its variation of Christmas around the day following Thanksgiving and now sees Christmas as over. Trees are being removed, decorations are gradually coming down, “Silent Night” is no longer played on the radio, and the energy of the shopping rush has halted. For Catholic Christians, our Christmas celebrations literally just began. Within our larger Christmas season, we also have the Christmas octave. The Christmas octave refers to the first eight days of Christmas celebrated with the same solemnity and energy as December 25th. On both a practical and spiritual level, try thinking of the eight days as a solemn and festive Christmas Day that lasts not 24 but 192 hours (24 hours X 8 days = 192 hours). I don’t know about you, but it helps that all the Christmas goodies and decorations are on sale when our Christmas season begins! To help us in our celebration, which saint do we celebrate on December 26th? The next day within the octave of Christmas is the Feast of Saint Stephen.
To be honest, it seems odd that Mother Church would set before us Saint Stephen during the height of our Christmas celebrations. We meet Saint Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles from the New Testament. He proclaimed Christ to others and was killed for it. Although he was not one of the apostles, he is the first Christian martyr. Nothing says, “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” quite like a death by stoning. Yet, this apparent contradiction points us to the deeper meaning involved in the original meaning of Christmas. Consider how Saint Luke reports the moment of his martyrdom:
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “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; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 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. -Acts 7:54-60
Notice a few crucial details. Saint Stephen was filled by the Holy Spirit, he was killed outside of the city, he cried out “receive my Spirit,” and he asked God to forgive those that sought his death. Who else could be described by these details? Jesus. The feast of Saint Stephen is a reminder that Christmas is not simply about the joy of God coming to dwell among us, but that Emmanuel would die for us in order that we may become children of God (cf. John 3:16). Consider these lines from two common Christmas carols:
Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die; Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, "Glory to the newborn King" (Hark the Herald Angel Sing)
Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through, The Cross be borne, for me, for you: Hail, hail, the Word made flesh, The Babe, the Son of Mary! (What Child is this?)
The Christian possesses joy because he knows that God descended into our humanity because he loves us. Yet, the Christian also possesses an understanding that this descent into our humanity included a descent into our suffering. As a Christian I feel both sorrow for my sins and for the suffering my sins caused my Maker, my Beloved. I am filled with gratitude that my Beloved would give me such a gift. Yet, the Cross is not the end of the story. There is resurrection and new life in the Spirit! All these elements are wrapped up in our celebration of Saint Stephen during Christmas: sorrow with repentance, joy, gratitude, and a hope open to the future that God alone makes possible.
One further element about martyrdom requires our focus. Saint Stephen is the first martyr. The Greek word we translate as “martyr” means “witness.” Saint Stephen’s life and death testified to his faith in Christ Jesus; he was a sign that pointed to the beauty, truth, and goodness of the Gospel. During Christmas, the Church is asking us to be witnesses that point people to Jesus. In this, we will also be imitating the shepherds and Mother Mary who are presented to us in the Christmas stories as witnesses. How will we announce Jesus and the nearness of the kingdom to people this Christmas season?
I should also mention that Saint Stephen was one of the first group of men ordained deacons (see Acts 6). The connection between these men and the diaconate is liturgically remembered in the words of ordination to the diaconate today. "And so, in the first days of your Church, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, your Son's Apostles appointed seven men of good repute to assist them in the daily ministry, that they might devote themselves more fully to prayer and preaching of the word. By prayer and the laying on of hands they entrusted to these chosen men the ministry of serving at table."
As we continue and balance the festivity of the Christmas octave, and keep in mind Christ’s suffering for our sins, let us remember to be witnesses and even thank the deacons of our community for serving the Lord and his people.
Saint Stephen the Martyr and Deacon, pray for us.