The Third Day of Christmas. Feast of Saint Stephen, the First Christian.
THIS DAY is set aside as a memorial of Stephen, the first Christian. Once again, the church seems to take a counter-intuitive approach, reminding us of sin and suffering hard on the heels of the joyful celebration of the Nativity.
But it is possible to see the reason behind this decision. In Advent we were reminded that our longing for the light of Christ is conditioned by the darkness that often surrounds us. In remembering Stephen on the second day [after] Christmas, the Church contemplates the link between life and death, between Christ’s incarnation and his crucifixion.
Even at the moment of his birth, Jesus is headed toward a sacrificial death, a fact foreshadowed by the gifts of the Magi. Along with gold and frankincense, gifts suitable for kings and priests, these men bring the newborn baby myrrh—the ointment used to prepare bodies for the grave.
As Jesus says in the Gospels, there is no greater love than the willingness to lay down one’s life for a friend. From the very beginning, this has been a stark reality for many of Christ’s most faithful friends. We learn about Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen was a Greek Jew and one of the first deacons of the church, having been appointed by the apostles to minister to the needy in his community. In his working with the poor, Stephen was filled with “God’s grace and power” and performed “wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”
Stephen not only performed miracles, but he also preached against the notion that God dwelled only in the Temple—a claim that earned the suspicion of Jewish authorities. He was brought before the Sanhedrin, where false witnesses accused him of trying to break the customs regarding worship handed down in the laws of Moses. Stephen defended himself, demonstrating through his interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures that the law was fulfilled in the person of Christ. God, he said, dwells not only in temples built by human hands, but also within human hearts.
The reaction of the authorities was an attempt to stifle this radical message that God is with us—and within us. They gnashed their teeth and literally covered their ears. When Stephen wouldn’t stop talking, they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death.
In the life and death of Stephen, we perceive another facet of the Incarnation. God became incarnate in a human body in order that after his death and resurrection—he can be made flesh once again in the actions of his followers. We are, in the words of the apostle Paul, the body of Christ. And there are times when members of the body are called to make the ultimate sacrifice, as Stephen did.
The Christians who made this day a commemoration of Stephen’s martyrdom were not sentimental, but neither were they without hope. They believed that we should celebrate our redemption, but never forget its cost.
~Adapted from Eugene Peterson, “Feast of Saint Stephen,” GOD WITH US: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe