Today we celebrate the life of St. Stephen, the man who is commonly known as the first Christian martyr. What does it mean that we celebrate the life of a martyr so soon after we celebrate the birth of Christ? After all, it's not like we know the birth day or the death day of St. Stephen. Our ancient Church parents could have put this feast day anywhere. Why put it here?
If you pay attention to the Lectionary readings, you will see that the issue of death is never far removed from the subject matter. Time and time again, Christ is quite clear about what may be required from us: our very lives. And we'd like to think that we might make this ultimate sacrifice for some amazing purpose: rescuing the oppressed from an evil dictatorship or saving orphans. But we may lose our life in the midst of some petty squabble; in some versions of St. Stephen's life, he is killed because of petty jealousy over his appointment as deacon, which triggers the conspiring which ultimately ends in his martyrdom.
Many of us live in a world where we are not likely to die a physical death for our religious beliefs. What does the life of this martyr have to say to us?
We are not likely to face death by stoning, but we may face other kinds of death. If we live the life that Christ commands, we will give away more of our money and possessions to the destitute. We will end our lives without as much wealth and prosperity--and yet, we will have more spiritual wealth. If we live the life that Christ commands, we may have uncomfortable decisions to make at work or in our families. We will have to live a life that's unlike the lives we see depicted in popular culture. That's not always easy, but in the end, we can hope the resistance to the most pernicious forms of popular culture will have been worth it.
And history reminds us that events can unfold rather quickly, and we might find ourselves living under an empire that demands us to live a life different than the one Christ calls us to live. We may face the ultimate penalty. Could we face death? Could we pray for the empire that kills us? As Christians, we're commanded to pray for our enemies, to not let hatred transform us into our enemies.
Let us take a moment to offer a prayer of thanks for all the martyrs who have come before us. Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime: "Almighty God, who gave to your servant Stephen boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that I may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in me, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."
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