Had any of us been asked what to celebrate the day after Christmas, it’s unlikely we’d have suggested St Stephen. Suddenly we pass from the serenity of the stable to a furious theological argument that ends in someone being stoned and to a Gospel that tells us everyone will hate us. It seems a far cry from Bethlehem.
Yet throughout almost all of Christian history St Stephen has been celebrated precisely here: in the Eastern churches on the 27th December and among us today, the 26th. And this strange juxtaposition has proved to be full of meaning.
Who was Stephen, first of all? Let’s attempt his personal profile. He was a leading figure in the Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem in the years immediately after our Lord’s death, resurrection and ascension. He’s the first-named of the seven men proposed by the community and ordained by the apostles to distribute food to the needy – the seven men seen by Tradition as the first deacons. He was clearly an exceptional and Spirit-filled personality. ‘Full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’, says St Luke, ‘full of grace and power’. And he embarked on his mission with energy and success. He was a worker of ‘great wonders and signs’, a gifted speaker: no one could resist ‘the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke’. He was a man on whom the power of Pentecost had come to rest. And such are not usually left in peace. The Christians in Jerusalem were a new, growing group. And as they grew so did tension with the Jewish authorities and their Council, the Sanhedrin. In the story of Stephen it reaches a climax. Previously the apostles had been warned against preaching that Jesus was the Christ. Then they had been flogged for doing so. And now Stephen is arrested, accused, brought before the Council and finally sent out of the city and stoned. ‘And that day a bitter persecution started against the church in Jerusalem’, with Saul, who had approved Stephen’s killing, a prime mover. But what is the upshot? The persecution compels the Christians to go elsewhere, and with them goes their message. The risen Christ changes Saul into Paul and sends him, not only to Jews, but to the Gentiles. The word of God passes beyond Jerusalem, out into the great wide Gentile, pagan, Greek and Roman world. Stephen’s life and death was the turning-point that made all this possible, a bridge from the Church’s Jewish beginnings to its Gentile future. In him, the protomartyr, the famous words first came true, ‘The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.’
But to return to his arrest and trial and death. In the course of it, he’s transfigured – something that has happened to others too. ‘His face was like the face of an angel’, says St Luke. Against the garbled accusations thrown at him, he lays out the Christian position with considerable power, provocatively even. Anger rises against him. Proper judicial procedure seems to be set aside. But he ‘full of the Holy Spirit, gazes into heaven and saw the glory of God, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God.’ His passion has the form of Christ’s. Like Christ, he’s a subject of false accusations, undergoes a trial, stands firm. And he dies praying, praying to Jesus and praying like Jesus: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’. We catch the Gospel echoes. And out of this Christ-like passion comes the resurrection of the wider mission, the growth of the Church, the salvation of Saul. In the end, Stephen’s profile is that of a disciple shaped to his Master.
And so back to Christmas.
The question is, what does this divine Child bring? St Stephen is an answer. It isn’t the so-called Gospel of prosperity. It isn’t an easy life. It isn’t universal popularity. Today’s Gospel could hardly be starker: ‘You will be hated by all men on account of my name.’ ‘You are well aware, then,’ wrote Paul to Timothy, ‘that anybody who tries to live in devotion to Christ is certain to be attacked’. Persecution is woven into the history of the Church. It’s a bitter part of the Church’s present. The German bishops, for one, ask their faithful on St Stephen’s day to remember the many Christians suffering for their faith now – in China, in India, in some Muslim countries and elsewhere. So it’s something other than a comfortable life this Child has in his hand. It is something other and better. It’s striking how often Luke uses the word ‘full’ of Stephen. This is it: Jesus brings a fullness In him all the fullness of God dwelt bodily, says St Paul, and of his fullness we have all received, says St John. Stephen is full of faith, says Luke. He’s full of grace and power. He’s full of wisdom. He’s full of the Holy Spirit. These are charged New Testament words. They are different aspects of the fullness Jesus brings. They are namings of the grace of Pentecost, the fire Jesus came to cast on earth.
St Stephen is a sign, a ‘witness’ (martyr), to this fullness.
And so we go back to his martyrdom. Thanks to this fullness he sees heaven opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He sees the new closeness with God that Jesus brings. He sees his victory over death. And this turns the day of his death into a day of victory, a birthday into true and everlasting life.
And out of this fullness he can even pray, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ Here is more victory. We won’t all be martyred, but we do all get hurt, and hurt each other. Our natural instinct is to hug that hurt, and let it fill us, till we’re full of resentment. Resentment is a cancer of the spirit. It’s not what we’re made for. No, it’s not a comfortable life Jesus brings us. It’s something other and better. It’s the capacity to forgive and even ultimately forget. Saul and Stephen are friends now. It’s the impossible the Christ Child brings, the unthinkable, a fullness that can even forgive the hurt. This is a gift so precious, so unique to Jesus, so quintessentially his, so at the very heart of the redemption he brings, that the day after his birth we celebrate someone who welcomed this gift to the full.
So we pray with Stephen, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’. Receive it and fill it – not with me, but with your Spirit. Fill it with faith and power and wisdom and grace. Amen.