“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen...”
That lesser-known Christmas carol about a Czech king from the tenth century is most likely how most of us have heard of St. Stephen, (and, for that matter, King Wenceslas). Coincidentally, the next line of the song goes like this:
“When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.”
It seems to be a common occurrence—even in Virginia—to have snow lying round about on the feast of Stephen, which is the day after western Christmas. People might find it a bit perplexing, if not jarring, that on December 26th, one blessed day after the celebration of Jesus’ birth—when we are presumably still glowing with joy and peace from hearing the story of what happened in Bethlehem—we commemorate the death of St. Stephen, one of the church’s first deacons and the very first recorded martyr of the church.
It does seem a little odd, I suppose. Stephen was stoned to death out in public, quite a contrast from the serenity of the manger birth. Stoning was a horrible way to die. People picked up rocks and pelted someone with them until he or she died, usually of internal injuries. While they did this, they typically shouted insults. This is the image with which we are presented one blessed day after Jesus was softly laid by his mother in the hay and the angels and shepherds gathered around in adoration. It’s not that we have anything against Stephen or that he died for the faith, for that matter, but maybe we need a little down-time after Christmas before we dive into all that heavy stuff.
|Stoning of Stephen, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont|
But whether you are fazed by the juxtaposition of these two seemingly contrasting commemorations or not, one point needs to be clarified: St. Stephen’s Day is not placed after Christmas. Rather, it is the other way around: the celebration of Christ’s birth has been placed on the day before the day to remember St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr. You see, no one knows exactly when Jesus was born. Christmas did not officially end up on December 25th until the beginning of the second century, and even then that was only in churches of the western traditions, of which we are a part. Eastern strands of Christianity retained their Christmas celebrations on January 6th or 7th, the original date of Christmas, and still do to this day. The commemoration of St. Stephen, on the other hand, appears on some of the earliest Christian calendars on either the 26th or 27th of December, which leads some historians to believe that December 26th or 27th or some date around here may actually be the date Stephen was martyred. So, with that in mind, we end up with the strange and perhaps startling conclusion that before Christians were celebrating the birth of Christ, they were commemorating the deaths of their saints!
It is in the deaths of the baptized—whether they were martyred or whether they died peacefully from natural causes (but especially if they are martyred)—where we find the pinnacle of their witness to Christ. At the point when this life ends, one’s faith can cling to nothing else but God. At that moment, the hopes and fears of all their years are thrust into God’s hands in the hope that Christ, the one person who has triumphed over death and the grave, will call them to eternal life. For those in the early church, this was extremely important. Birthdays were rarely mentioned or cared about. It was one’s date of death that spurred those still living to look to heaven. Stephen’s last words in this morning’s lesson from Acts, as the stones come raining down, testify to this: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Not only does he cling to Jesus as he dies, but he also sees it as a chance to testify.
The word “martyr,” in fact, actually means “witness.” Someone who is killed on account of their faith gives the utmost witness to that faith’s hope. Stephen’s martyrdom was the first recorded martyrdom in Christianity. He was the first person to die because of Jesus’ resurrection. If I were an early Christian, or even if I had been hurling those stones, you’d better believe that would make an impression on me—watching someone refuse to back down from this assertion that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. In fact, that should have an effect on any Christian living today. One of my colleagues once called this “St. Reality” day. Perhaps so: confessing faith can lead to hard times, even death in some cases. And so we continue to commemorate St. Stephen as one way of reminding us of this reality.
|The Stoning of Stephen, Annibale Carracci (1603-04)|
Other than being the church’s first martyr, Stephen was also one of the church’s first deacons. What was a deacon? Well, we learn from Acts, chapter 6, that a conflict was arising in the early church over the distribution of alms and food to widows in the church. The widows of Greek descent were complaining that the widows of Jewish descent were getting a greater proportion of food and financial assistance. Therefore, the disciples gathered the believers together and hammered out a way to deal with the problem. They decided to appoint seven people and entrust them with the task of keeping the church books accurate and making sure that the money that was being collected for the needy was being distributed fairly. Those seven were called deacons, a Greek word that means, literally, to “wait on tables,” or “to serve.” Stephen was one of those original seven deacons, which essentially makes Stephen one of the first people to get pressed into serving on Church council. For that alone we should remember him and say, “God rest his soul!”
Stephen was active in the early church and helped it spread and grow. He is described repeatedly as a man full of grace and power and filled with the Holy Spirit, doing great wonders for the people. However, almost as soon as Stephen is chosen as deacon, he is arrested and brought before the council of the synagogue because of what he is saying about Jesus and about God. He is asked by the high priest about what he is preaching, and Stephen responds with a long sermon which basically recites all of the history of Israel, from Abraham all the way through Moses and the prophets, giving testimony of how God had been calling them to faithfulness. God has a long legacy of loving the people of earth. In fact, God’s is the longest legacy in the universe of loving humankind, yet his people continually have a hard time recognizing and responding to that love, instead choosing to worship other false gods and going their own way. The people get enraged at what Stephen says to them (he calls them stiff-necked, which is what Moses had also called them) to the point that they throw council procedure out the window and drag him out of the city right there and kill him.
There is a lot we may observe and remember from the account of Stephen’s martyrdom, but one of the most critical things worth noting is how sin and evil must resort to lying in order to make gains in this world. It is not by accident that the first question that used to be asked at a person’s baptism was, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?” They’ve changed the wording a little bit in the new hymnal, but for years that was the question put to a person who was being baptized. It was way of acknowledging that the only way the devil can advance his agenda is to make empty promises and spread deceit about God and what God has done for creation. The truth is that God has the longest and best legacy of love and justice in the history of the universe. Stephen speaks the truth as he knows it, that Jesus is the lone Righteous One who answers God’s call of complete and utter faithfulness without fault, even to death, on behalf of all people. Yet each time Stephen speaks, this truth is confronted with profound lies and falsity.
When he first starts to preach and do wonders of the truth in verse 11, this truth about God kicks up some protest. They stand up and argue with him. Then, as the scene continues, more lies. His accusers secretly instigate—that is, the start rumors—that Stephen is blaspheming. Then a little later we learn false witnesses are set up to bring charges against him before the council, even though when they look at him they see the face of an angel. Eventually, after his long, truth-filled speech, the accusers actually cover their ears in order to keep the truth out. Sin must lie and attempt to cover our ears in order to deny the reality that God loves the world and calls it to faithfulness. Sin must resort to lying and diverting attention and covering ears in order to drown out the truth of yesterday, that the word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.
Therefore, let us know what deacon Stephen knew and exuded from his personality, full of grace and power: that Christ, the baby born in Bethehem is faithful for us, even through death. Just as we may still be imagining Mary and Joseph gathering up their helpless son and cradling him in safety, Jesus gathers us up and pulls us from the lies and deceit of the world—and of ourselves—and holds us to him like a mother hen holds her baby chicks. Just as Stephen looked up to see the glory of God, with Jesus standing at God’s right hand, we are promised that one day we will see him thus.
For now, see this truth in the wood of the cross, and taste it in the bread and the wine. Feel this truth in the water splashed on your head at baptism. Sing this legacy of love in the hymns of the church, and pray this truth with the might of Stephen, deacon and martyr.
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,
Hail the sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glories by,
Born that we no more may die.
Born to raise each child of earth
Born to give us second birth!
Hark! The Herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.