Feast of St. Stephen, Proto-martyr
(Acts 6:8-10.7:54-59; Matthew 10:17-22)
In T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, predicts his martyrdom in his Christmas sermon. He tells the people that in the Christmas mass not only the birth of Jesus but also his death are remembered. This dual remembrance indicates that the Christian life is neither pure joy nor pure sorrow. No, we live both on every occasion. Thomas goes on to ask, “Is it an accident … that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ?” Of course not, the Church deliberately places the martyrdom of Stephen on the day after Christmas to temper our celebration.
We can point to this duality in both Luke’s and Matthew’s Nativity accounts. In Luke after Jesus is born, his parents take him to the Temple where Simeon prophesizes that Jesus will be a sign to be contradicted. He means that Jesus’ enemies will do him in. In Matthew the horror is more evident. The birth of Jesus, the King of the Jews, occasions the jealousy of King Herod. To eliminate his rival Herod has all male infants of the area murdered.
We must take to heart the traverse sentiments of Christian life. Our happiest celebrations should include a remembrance of fellow humans suffering around the world. Similarly, our most intolerable moments, like the loss of a loved one, should not go without faith in Christ’s victory over death. Christians are neither rosy-eyed optimists nor morose pessimists. No, we live both the death and the resurrection of the Lord deep in our hearts.