By Jeremy Bergstrom
On this day the Church commemorates St. Stephen, one of the first Christian deacons and the first martyr for Christ (Acts 6:1-8:2). It may strike us as strange to celebrate the victim of a public stoning during the Christmas season, but let’s face it, the Christ child we receive is a mixture of conflicting and contrasting images. When we receive Christ we receive not only the tenderness and innocence of our infant Lord. Thanks to the continuous cycle of the Church’s calendar, we’re also mindful that the same babe is the cosmic Lord and warrior-judge we anticipate in Advent; and we dread thinking about the pain and torment his tender flesh will suffer on our behalf on Calvary. The infant son of Mary and Joseph is simultaneously king and victim.
John Donne provides one of my favorite reflections on this mystery:
The whole life of Christ was a continuall Passion; others die Martyrs, but Christ was born a Martyr. He found a Golgotha(where he was crucified) even in Bethlem, where he was born; For, to his tendernesse then, the strawes were almost as sharp as the thornes after; and the Manger as uneasie at first, as his Crosse at last. His birth and his death were but one continuall act, and his Christmas-day and his Good Friday, are but the evening and morning of one and the same day. And as even his birth, is his death, so every action and passage that manifests Christ to us, is his birth.John Donne, St. Paul’s, Christmas Day 1626
St. Stephen’s brief ministry and dramatic death participate in and therefore set before us the continuous act of suffering known as the incarnation of the Divine Word. And this makes St. Stephen’s suffering a wonderful Christmas story, for as Donne says, “every action and passage that manifests Christ to us, is his birth.” The martyr has suffered, and Christ is born. Glory to God in the highest!
This may strike us modern folk as unnecessarily dark and morbid, but consider those of the early Church who joyfully followed St. Stephen’s example as the path to life and new birth. One of the best is St. Ignatius of Antioch, the second-century bishop and martyr, who saw the light of life in the face of imminent suffering. Convicted by the still-pagan Roman Empire as a Christian, under armed guard and being escorted to Rome to face the beasts in the Coliseum, he sends a letter to the Christians there, asking them not to intervene in his trial and execution.
May I have the full pleasure of the wild beasts prepared for me. … Grant this to me; I know what benefits me. Now I am beginning to become a disciple … let them come upon me, only that I may attain to Jesus Christ. … It is better for me to die in Jesus Christ than to rule the ends of the earth. That is the one I seek, who died on our behalf; that is the one I desire, who arose for us. But pains of birth have come upon me. Grant this to me, brothers and sisters: do not keep me from living; do not wish me to die; do not hand over to the world one who wants to belong to God.Ignatius of Antioch, To the Romans 5-6
In Christ, what it means to live and die are radically reversed. We don’t receive the infant Christ in a vacuum, but from the testimony of faithful Christians like Stephen and Irenaeus, those who walked the way of Calvary and found it to be the birth of Christ within them, and their birth as disciples of Christ and children of God.
Jesus Christ knew what he came to earth to do, and he came to earth knowing what he hoped to produce in us. And so the crèche is both an occasion for thanksgiving and a call to die, to offer ourselves as a spiritual sacrifice through repentance and self-denial, that Christ may be birthed within you and me, and that sharing in his sufferings, we too may know the power of his victory over sin and death, and even the tenderness of his love and mercy.