By Steve Rice
The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine’s medieval commentary on the saints, says the Church has kept the feasts of St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents on the days immediately following Christmas so that Our Lord “might have his companions close to him.” Quoting Song of Solomon 5:10, “My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousands,” de Voragine says the Church sees in this text these holy ones and their respective martyrdoms. St. Stephen’s martyrdom was willed and endured, meaning he willingly offered his life for Christ, and his liturgical color is red (ruddy). St John’s was willed but not endured, he offered his life but did not die a martyr’s death, and his liturgical color is white (radiant). The Holy Innocents endured martyrs’ deaths but they were too young to will it, and they are among the ten thousands.
The development of the church calendar, temporal and sanctoral, isn’t always self-explanatory. Why and when certain feasts are kept has long fed scholarly debate (for a deep dive see Matthew Olver’s recent essay). Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of Our Lord’s Nativity and the triduum of martyrs has formed the Church’s prayer for at least 1,500 years. A juxtaposition, I’m afraid, we’ve lost.
A very early tradition holds that Our Lord was crucified on March 25, the same day of his conception, creating a theological loop that ever deepens the connection between his birth and death. Jesus Christ was born so he could die for our sins. In Christ, we die to our sins so we may be born again. This loop between death and birth is what the Church has embedded in her rhythm of prayer as a closed circuit that gives energy to our faith and life. If we break this circuit, we seek spiritual energy in places that have no power. Christmas can then become a nebulous season of happiness and daily deliveries from Amazon Prime. Discipleship can become a Facebook “like” and a selfie at the food bank. The radical call to die that we might actually live, now becomes radicalism from a past era.
There is no easy remedy to decades of theological and ascetical decay, but a renewed emphasis on the major feast days, even when (especially when) they invariably and inconveniently fall on the second day of Christmas, is a very good first step. The poinsettias are still in the chancel, the wreaths are still on the doors, and Jesus is still comfortably placed in the crèche. The signs around us are clear that Christ is born. Now we focus on the signs within us. We don’t celebrate Our Lord’s birth with great solemnity because he went on to do great things. Christmas is not the same thing as Presidents’ Day. We celebrate his birth because it ultimately brings us in contact with his death, where we discover life that really is life. This life is not found, despite every generational attempt to prove otherwise, by filling our lives with money, things, accomplishments, or power.
Coming to church to celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen, just hours after “Silent Night,” challenges a consumerist view of Christmas and Christianity. Rather than getting everything on a list, Stephen had everything taken away. He was framed, with his accusers gaslighting him with the fuel of envy. His reputation was ruined, his sense of security was gone, and he was brought before the Jewish Council. Everything was stripped away, and yet St. Luke repeats the refrain that Stephen was full. He was full of the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3). He was full of grace and power (6:8), and just before his death he was full of the Holy Spirit (7:55). He spoke with power and truth; his message was so pure, his face seemed angelic. Like his Lord, who was born in Bethlehem, in a place barely fit for a human person, let alone the King of Kings, Stephen had emptied himself. There was only room for Christ.
When I am full of myself, I am at my worst. Because I am so full of myself, and that is all I can see, everything is out of proportion and void of perspective. At those moments, I am petty, vindictive, sensitive, and when I pray, my prayer is saturated with a desire for comeuppance. We block, unfriend, and cancel the offender. My face may contort to look like an angel, but not of the heavenly kind. When I am full of myself, I am standing at the crib of Christ like a spoiled, dissatisfied kid on Christmas morning, looking around to see if there is anything else to open, which is often the attitude of many at church.
Celebrating martyrs is not a justification or excuse for violence, nor is it a call for the vulnerable to suffer in silence. Rather we see in Stephen, no shrinking violet, but a Christian who so identified with Jesus Christ that he was able to respond to the violence like Jesus Christ. When it is Christ who lives in us and speaks within us, then people will inevitably seek to crucify the Christ in us. He saw a love greater than the hate that dominated the moment. Stephen prayed for the Lord to receive his spirit and then knelt down and prayed that those hurling stones might be forgiven. If Christ is the one loving within us, then Christ is also the one suffering within us. If Jesus Christ is suffering within us, he also has the power to forgive within us. Emptied of ourselves and full of Christ, we stand at his crib with gratitude, knowing how the wood of the crib connects to the wood of the cross. We dare not look for another gift for we know there can be nothing greater to receive.
The life and death of St. Stephen was so formative for early Christians that St. Augustine, in The City of God, tells of many miracles and healings in the presence of Stephen’s relics and at his shrines. Stephen was such a powerful intercessor that St. Augustine adds that if someone wrote of all the public healings (not counting other marvels), it would fill many volumes and still be incomplete. Some years ago, I was given custody of a relic of the Protomartyr. I’ve often wondered if the relic in my care was one of those mentioned by St. Augustine. It doesn’t matter. Equally powerful is the living witness of the Christian, who like Stephen, has emptied herself of everything but Jesus Christ, who loves and forgives like the Lord, because it is the Lord who loves and forgives within her. Equally powerful is a Christian who has made their heart a manger for Christ. On the second day of Christmas, Our True Love has given us one of his companions to be our own. Let us keep his feast.