I am a person who likes to celebrate all twelve days of Christmas, enjoying them greedily like a miser caressing her gold: the Christmas tree, the pretty lights, Handel’s Messiah, the joy of love expressed in the exchange of gifts and cards, all the special little things. The Christ Child, Holy Incarnation, is finally delivered, and the season of celebration has come.
I like to really savor this special Kairos time, in the middle of which is the turning of the year with its opportunity for looking forward and back, checking in on how life is going, making resolutions.
It’s a quiet, peaceful interlude, twelve days of light work and deep reflection. How jarring, then, to have the feast day of St. Stephen, first Christian martyr, on the very second day.
Stephen, newly made a deacon in the fledgling church in Jerusalem, was filled with the Holy Spirit. He went about town performing wondrous deeds and proclaiming the Good News, and nobody could argue him into submission. His enthusiasm was drawing people away from solid Jewish practices into the new Jesus cult. So the protectors of the faith set up a kangaroo court and condemned him to death by stoning.
Stoning is a very primitive way of killing somebody. Standing around a person in a circle and hurling rocks at them until they fall down and die – I imagine ancient humans, long before the discovery of the wheel or even of fire, engaging in this practice. It is mob behavior at its most ugly. It is designed so the offensive thing – the scandalous teaching, the powerful and dangerous understanding or practice – is slaughtered along with the person. “You are not of us,” the tribe in effect says. “You must be destroyed.”
Mary, Jesus’ mother, could have suffered such a fate for the scandalous indignity of being pregnant out of wedlock. And the woman caught in adultery, whom Jesus rescued, was also headed toward that end. They had stepped beyond the bounds of what was acceptable, permissible.
The celebration of the feast day of St. Stephen probably predates the celebration of Christmas in Christian practice by a good many centuries. Christmas, piggybacking on the rites of several indigenous European religions, is a fairly late addition. And there is a way in which Stephen’s martyrdom is a more pertinent tale. As followers of the Way of Jesus, we are called to emulate that love of the Spirit that has us gushing with dangerous, life-giving words and actions. We are called to be on the cusp of what is holy and healing, even when it puts us outside the acceptable bounds of the tribe. We are called to sacrifice on behalf of the oppressed, the needy and the powerless. We are called to those situations that wind up getting us ostracized or killed.
So today, on the second day of Christmas, let’s honor the first Christian martyr. And let’s remember what blesses us and keeps us, while at the same time being life-threateningly dangerous, the Holy Spirit with her capricious, dangerous leadings. As we celebrate the birth of the Child let us also commit to the hazardous undertaking of living lives that show forth the Gospel in deed and in word. Alleluia!
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado