Why spoil the fun? Why in the midst of our Christmas festivities, celebrating this joyous birth, do we switch to remember someone who was stoned to death? Why does the calendar make Boxing Day the Feast of Stephen? Well, Christian tradition has always seen birth and death closely bound together. For example Lady Day – the Annunciation (9 months before Christmas on 25 March) - often collides with Holy Week and Easter; indeed, the medievals insisted that Jesus’ conception and death must have been on the same day, because if he was perfect his earthly life must have been an exact number of years. Even when we are most intent on looking at the cross, we are beckoned to the birth of Christ. Conversely, even when we focussed on the joy of his birth, we are drawn straightway to the sorrow of death.
Many of our carols, both old and new, recognise this – that we cannot consider the birth of Jesus in isolation, because our salvation depends on the whole of his life, and sacrifice. We get it in The holly and the ivy, for instance, with the prickle, the thorn, the berry as red as any blood. We get it in Sing Lullaby – ‘Hush, do not wake the infant King: soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing, then in the grave at last reposing’. We get it in the contemporary carol Born in the night: ‘Truth of our life, Mary’s child, you tell us God is good; prove it is true, Mary’s child, go to your cross of wood.’ One that you probably won’t know, words written by John Mason Neale for an old German tune, puts it rather more oddly:
Jesus Christ was born to conquer, born to save, born to save, laurel wave!
Jesus Christ was born to govern, born a king, born a king, bay-wreaths bring!
Jesus Christ is born to suffer, born for you, born for you, holly strew!
Who was Stephen? (Let's leave aside the other question, who was good king Wenceslaus, though that's also an interesting detective story.) Luke tells us, in Acts, how the Jerusalem Christians decided to appoint seven servants, ‘deacons’, to assist in the work of the church, and to lighten the load of the apostles. The daily distribution to widows was not functioning properly and it seems that the Greek-speaking community felt neglected. Seven men were accordingly chosen, the first of whom was Stephen. They were set before the apostles, and prayer was offered with the laying on of hands (Acts 6.1-6). It would seem that it was Stephen’s actions rather than his words that brought him into immediate controversy with the Jewish authorities. He was brought before the High Priest, where he made a great speech in his defence (Acts 7.1-53): a speech which is an account of the good purposes of God in the old covenant and how these are fulfilled in the new. It is hard hitting to those who refused to recognize Jesus, namely the Jewish authorities. Perhaps Luke intends us to understand that Stephen knew what was coming and that this was his last chance. At any rate, he was taken out and stoned to death. At the moment of his death, he was filled with the Spirit, and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at his right hand. He commended himself to Jesus (Acts 7.54-60), in words that are in sharp contrast to the dying words of Zechariah, the priest’s son who dared to prophesy against Israel (2 Chr 24.22): he called for vengeance and retribution - may the Lord see and avenge. Stephen prayed do not hold this sin against them. Here he is echoing Luke’s account of Jesus’ own death, when he commends his spirit into his Father’s hands and prays Father, forgive [Coventry cathedral].
There are many parallels between Luke’s narratives of Jesus and Stephen at their deaths. Both are innocent, both commend themselves to God in trust at the end, both pray for those who are killing them, and both die outside the city. But care is taken to draw contrasts between the two: Stephen is not crucified, he points to Jesus throughout, both in his speech and in his prayer, and whereas Jesus dies surrounded by a small band of sympathizers, Stephen dies surrounded by his accusers. He is the first Christian martyr. This is how he has been referred to in both east and west across the centuries, and it is good that this is how we remember him now. For the early church drew strength from the blood of the martyrs. They left deep in the corporate memory of the Christian community not discussion about pain but the experience of suffering.
In both east and west, there has been a tradition that began from the 4th and 5th centuries of placing Stephen, John and the Holy Innocents close to Jesus’ birth: the first martyr, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and those who died cruelly in the wake of Christ’s birth. Luke takes pains to tell us that a persecution arose after the death of Stephen (Acts 11.19), and he is described as a martyr (= a witness) by Paul in his speech to the people at Jerusalem (Acts 22.20).
How can this painful juxtaposition of birth and death really work out? A C19 hymn from the Danish Lutheran Church – where they call today ‘Second Christmas Day’ - draws Stephen into the Bethlehem scene with characteristic Lutheran piety, picking up the meaning of the name Stephen, stephanos, which is Greek for a wreath, symbol of victory. Here is a literal translation of the opening lines:
Hail, little child, laid in a crib, Prince of Christmas, yet our reconciler with God!
To you belong all praise and might, the Crown of Heaven, and of all life.
How radiates today with special splendour over your crib that wreath
with which your martyr Stephen is adorned
because you took him suddenly away from us!
The peace of the Christmas angels comes down upon the eyes of the glorified Stephen,
and the power and glory of Christmas are revealed in his death.
So he fell into a sweet heavenly sleep, on his bed of stones, unharmed,
like a babe in his mother’s arms.
Crib and martyrdom are brought together and show why Stephen became a popular subject of church dedications (even though it’s an inconvenient time for patronal festivals). It’s also good to honour him because he was a deacon, one of the three orders of ministry in our church. All priests (and indeed bishops) remain deacons too, and indeed members of the laity – of the whole people of God. The ministry of service is the primary mode of all Christian ministry, for all of us. Instead of hierarchy, we have the humble crib and the crown which is a martyr’s wreath. We often speak of Christ as a High Priest (eg Heb 3.1), representing us before God. We may even sometimes depict him in glorious robes, as a mighty prelate. But his whole life began and continued as a deacon, a servant of all. and he calls us to be servants of each other (Mark 10.43). Bethlehem is, if you like, God’s back door into the human race, through which he sneaks into our midst, and spends much of his time unnoticed, ignored, or uncomfortably challenging. Stephen’s closeness to Christmas subverts our human assumptions and structures, challenging our systems and our certainties, political, social and ecclesiastical.
Richard Young (Rector)