Slice another pie and mix up more stuffing. The religious festivals tramp on like salivating cholesterol monsters. The Feast of St. Stephens comes on December 26th, the same date as Boxing Day in the former British Empire and Wren’s Day in Ireland. It’s also the Second Day of Christmas (remember the thirteen-day season) and Rummage-through-the-leftovers Day. Because we can.
The Feast of St. Stephens is the most intriguing because it celebrates the first Christian martyr. Underscore the italicized word: We celebrate the hour a mob stoned someone to death. How gauche. How morbid. How … non-modern to our techno-savvy minds. No business school offers martyrdom courses and no goal-oriented, five-year plan begins with the following words: “I will take the following practical steps so that I can be jailed, tortured, and possibly murdered …”
Yesteryear’s martyrs focused on eternity (where will I be a thousand years from now?); today’s pragmatists dwell on the here and now. After all, medical advances have pushed life-spans into the eighties – and I need a raise – so eternity is rendered irrelevant.
And yet martyrdom won’t let go. It sneaks into our irreligious world and reminds us that there is more to life than bits and bytes. We admire the successful, especially those who spread their success to others: Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, among others. But we don’t hold them in awe. We reserve reverence for Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, the four Maryknoll sisters and missionaries killed in El Salvador in 1980, and the six Jesuit priests killed there in 1989 – along with their housekeeper and her daughter.
Our irresistible awe of them serves as Eternity’s reminder: “I’m still relevant – and your lengthened life is still temporal. No fair hiding from me.”
A fifth-century North African bishop, Fulgentius of Ruspe, knew all about the martyr’s life. He was hounded in years of persecution. This is what he preached on one Saint Stephen’s Day:
Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier. Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.
Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvelous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.
And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. 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. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.
Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.
Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.
My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.