Friday, December 26, 2008

Saint Stephen's Day

I remember well being taught as a child how significant it is that, on the day after Christmas Day, the Church chooses to honor the first person willingly to die for Christ - that person being, of course, the deacon Stephen. I used to teach for St. Stephen's School in Alexandria, Virginia - in those days an all boys school. It was quite stirring to hear hundreds of boys singing "He prayed for them that did the wrong; who follows in his train?" on many a chapel day. What Stephen prayed as his persecutors were stoning him was this: "Lay not this sin to their charge." Amazing.

In the past I've always considered this day to be one of reflection about the willingness to die for Christ. But this year I see it more as a call to be willing to forgive - no matter how egregious is the offense. Not condone. (People, sadly, often confuse forgiveness with condoning.) Stephen did label what was being done to him a sin, after all. But to find a way (no matter how long it takes, no matter how much work it takes) to wish for our enemies what we wish for ourselves - happiness, peace, alleviation from suffering and, finally, eternal life with God.

For a truly inspiring sermon on martyrdom by Lutheran pastor, Edward F. Markquart, go here.

But, perhaps the most inspiring words ever preached on this subject were uttered by St. Thomas Becket in the year 1170 - just four days before his own martyrdom:

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His First martyr: the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the date of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men... for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.
May blessed St. Stephen strengthen us by his example and aid us with his prayers.


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