Crib to Cross
Memorial of St. Stephen, Protomartyr
At first glance, today’s commemoration of the martyrdom of Stephen seems rather incongruous with our celebration of Christmas. Only yesterday we were reveling in the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger as his devoted parents, some amazed shepherds, adoring angels and even interested animals gather around him. Today the strains of Gloria in Excelcis Deo are jarringly replaced by the cries of a mob bent on the extrajudicial enforcement of a blasphemy law—something that sadly persists even today in some countries.
Yet the Church wants to remind us that there is no separating the crib from the cross, the Mystery of the Incarnation from the Paschal Mystery. At the center of it all is God’s love for us, a love stronger than death.
Stephen was one of the seven men commissioned by the apostles to minister (in Greek, diakoneó) by managing the community’s daily distribution of sustenance to widows, which had become embroiled by complaints of discrimination based on language (see Acts 6:1-8). He also proved to be quite an evangelist, “filled with grace and power” and able to debate with the best of his fellow Jews about Jesus and the gospel (see Acts 6:9-10).
Accused of blasphemy, Stephen launches into an eloquent discourse on salvation history that is not included in today’s first reading but which explains why the crowds grew ever more enraged at him and soon stoned him to death. Starting with Abraham and the other patriarchs, continuing with Moses and the Exodus and then David and Solomon, Stephen recounts God’s faithfulness and revelations to his people throughout salvation history while also chronicling Israel’s infidelities, idolatry and resistance to God and God’s servants, including the prophets. Jesus, Stephen concludes, is just the latest and ultimate messenger and message from God rejected by a “stiff-necked” people (see generally Acts 6:10-7:53).
Like Jesus, Stephen becomes the victim of a mob who thinks that they are doing God’s will but are actually working against it and the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, Stephen also forgives his attackers and willingly hands over his spirit as well as his body as a sacrifice. He thus becomes the church’s protomartyr or the first disciple to witness to Jesus and the gospel to the point of death. This, Jesus predicts in our gospel reading, can be part of the real and sobering cost of discipleship. It’s not the stuff of jingle bells.
Today is the day that people traditionally spend returning or exchanging the gifts they received (or were re-gifted) at Christmas. The martyrdom of Stephen reminds us of the consequences of receiving God’s gift to us—the gift of Jesus—and making it part of our lives. –JC