Friday, December 26, 2008

St. Stephen

Today is the feast day for the first Christian martyr, according to the book of Acts. Steven was a deacon, a servant of others in the name of Christ, whose death sentence probably stemmed, if it happened at all, from a refusal to acknowledge the Imperial cult. In Acts, a witness and supporter of his murder is a young tent maker named Saul.

I've often wondered about the fact that the first feast day after Christmas is in honor of the death of St. Stephen (two days from now, it is the feast of the slaughter of the innocents). We have this long, intense season of Advent, during which we prepare ourselves, as John the Baptizer insisted, for the coming of the Messiah. Then, immediately following the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the coming of the light in the midst of our darkness, we are called upon to remember the unjust execution of a man whose sole crime was serving his Lord. It is as far removed from the over-sentimentalized "Christmasy" stuff we are inundated with, especially here in America, as can be. Yet, just as it is important to sit with the shepherds in the stable and gaze in wonder at this Savior born to us, it is also important to remember that this baby grew up, ministered to his people, died on a cross, rose, and those who understood and believed his message and in his person were willing to die for that belief.

We tend to think of "peace" as the absence of turmoil or strife. Yet, it seems to me the peace of God is a kind of self-assurance in the midst of strife and turmoil. Even more, sometimes the peace that faith brings creates, or at any rate enhances our perception, of the turmoil and strife which surrounds us. Either way, We are called to remember, just one day after we remember the birth of Jesus, what one result of that birth was - the willing death at the hands of an unjust government of one who believed in the words and person of the man that baby would become.

Jesus was born in to a world of strife. While his Kingdom is surely the peaceable Kingdom for which we Christians work and pray, we must never forget that the strife of this world refuses to surrender, and will fight to hold sway. The death of St. Stephen was just the first of a seemingly endless supply of persons who have been and continue to be willing to not just live for Jesus, but to die for him as well. While we can decry the injustice and evil of the system that brought about his death, we should also remember the strength and courage of St. Stephen as he faced his accusers, and his executioners.

While Christmas is over, at least for another year, the on-going life of the church is watered by the blood of those who, like St. Stephen so long ago, have refused to give up their faith in Jesus for the promise of life here and now, believing their life, in the crucified and risen Christ, is not limited to the mundane, banal, and evil machinations of this world.

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