Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr
(Acts 6:8-10.7:54-59; Matthew 10:17-22)
T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral tells the story of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. Half-way through the play, the archbishop delivers his Christmas sermon. He tells the congregation that at Christmas mass not only the birth of Jesus is remembered but also his passion and death. He adds that this dual remembrance indicates that the Christian life is neither pure joy nor pure sorrow. 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?” Not at all, the Church deliberately places the martyrdom of Stephen on the day after Christmas to temper our celebration. We must keep in mind that Jesus became human to sacrifice himself for others.
Unless people think that the dual sentiment is solely the invention of the Medieval Church, we can point to the same juxtaposition of elation and ominous sorrow in both Luke’s and Matthew’s Nativity accounts. In Luke after Jesus is born his parents take him to the Temple. There the holy man Simeon makes the foreboding prophecy that Jesus will be a sign to be contradicted. In other words, Jesus will extend God’s love to people, but his offer will in some cases be brutally rejected. In Matthew the horror is more evident. Jesus’ birth occasions the jealousy of King Herod. To eliminate his rival Herod has all male infants of the area two years or under murdered.
We must take to heart the cross sentiments of Christian life. Our happiest celebrations like a dear friend’s birthday should not ignore the fact that fellow humans are suffering often dire circumstances. Similarly, our most intolerable burdens like the loss of a loved one should not go without faith in Christ’s victory over sin and death. Christians are neither rosy-eyed optimists nor unrelenting pessimists. No, we live both the death and the resurrection of the Lord deep in our hearts everyday.