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Christmas is about martyrdom: The lesson of St. Stephen

Ten years ago, I was ordained a deacon on June 3, the day the Church commemorates the Ugandan Martyrs, a group of Anglicans and Roman Catholics who were executed in the late 19th century for their faith. I asked the bishop if he would be willing to pray the collect for that day during my ordination. The dean of the cathedral strongly objected. She was disturbed by the collect’s proclamation, à la Tertullian, that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The bishop, however, agreed with me, and so a room full of well-dressed people squirmed a little in their seats as these words were read aloud.

Martyrdom is not usually among the first things we mention about Christianity to prospective converts. “Come and join us! If you do, there is a better than average chance you’ll be killed for it!” Of course, that is not always true, especially in America, where we can practice our Christianity quite comfortably, despite the protestations of some that we are all suffering mightily for not having store clerks wish us a Merry Christmas.

Historically, though, Christianity has always been a dangerous business. Whether we are talking about early martyrs like St. Perpetua or St. Polycarp, the martyrs of Uganda, the millions martyred under the Soviets in the 20th century, or those martyred more recently by Islamist terrorists (Fr. Jacques Hamel being only a particularly prominent example), those who have followed Jesus have always shed a great deal of their blood. Martyrdom is no small part of the Christian experience. As the words of Tertullian make clear, the Church has always considered martyrdom a blessing and a gift, not because we long for Christians to suffer and die but because in the sacrifices of the martyrs we see most clearly the strength and power of faith in the Risen Lord.

Every year on December 26, the day after we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. St. Stephen was among the first deacons of the Church. He was “full of faith and power” and “did great wonders among the people.” For this, he was condemned by a council of Jewish leaders and, after giving a lengthy speech, was stoned to death. The whole episode is recorded in the sixth and seventh chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.

It seems like a strange and incongruent thing, perhaps, to be celebrating the blood of a martyr so soon after celebrating the birth of a king, but it is a helpful reminder of what Christmas is about. Christmas is a season of joyous celebration because God loves us so very much that he was willing to give up everything for us. The Son of God came into the world by emptying himself of all power and honor and rank, taking on our weak and lowly form, allowing himself to become helpless for our sake. In so doing, he took up the cross right from the very beginning. The Incarnation is not a separate event from the sacrifice of God, it is the sacrifice of God.

The Son became human in order to walk the path that leads to the cross. He was born to die.

This fact unsettles a lot of modern people. It elicits cries of divine child abuse from the enlightened and civilized classes, who “know” that the crucifixion must have been a mistake that brought to a close before its time an all too promising life. Yet it is our violence that God willingly receives in the Incarnation. We have turned the world upside down through sin. He came to turn it right side up again through love.

Sin and love cannot coexist. They are radically opposed to one another. When they are forced to meet each other, the reaction is always violent — on the part of sin. In our sin, we react to the love of God with fierce anger. God knew this before he even created the world. He knew there was no path for him to walk amid sinners that did not lead to the cross.

He did it anyway.

The word martyr means a witness. When someone willingly dies for the Christian faith, it presents the world with a strong witness to the power of the faith. Martyrdom is different from the death of Jesus, which was not only a witness but also a powerful action of God to transform the world. Martyrdom is not transformative in its own right. It is transformative only by association. The sacrifice of a martyr points beyond itself to the sacrifice of the Lord. Celebrating the martyrdom of St. Stephen does not make us Stephenites, nor would St. Stephen want that for us, but the witness of his martyrdom can draw us more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation and the cross.

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For many Christians around the world today, this is not theoretical. In places like Indonesia, China, Nigeria, and the Middle East, Christians are regularly arrested, attacked, or killed for their faith. Just this month, a suicide bomber entered a Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo during a service and killed 25 people in a matter of seconds.

In America, we skip church to take our kids to a game, or because we do not like the color of the new carpet in the sanctuary. In other parts of the world, Christians go to church even though they know they could die before the liturgy concludes.

It is important everywhere for the Church to honor her martyrs, but perhaps most especially for the Church in privileged places. It is far too easy to become complacent and think of our Christianity as something we choose to have as a part of our identity — like our membership in a club or our choice to root for a particular sports franchise — rather than think of it as the light of the world, which defines not only who we are but the very nature of all reality.

It is only when we remember that Christianity is worth dying for that we start to realize that it is also worth living for.


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