Grace to you and Merry Christmas!
Every 26th of December, that is the day after Christmas, the Catholic Church celebrates the life of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He was murdered around 35 AD for believing and professing Jesus Christ as Lord. He was one of the first deacons (seven deacons) ever to be ordained in the history of the Church (see Acts of the Apostles chapter six).
Steven was killed because he believed in Jesus as the Christ, Lord and Savior; and he preached about him publicly. He had a heated debate with opponents. He also had a mystic vision of heaven and was filled with joy. He suffered the heavy blows of the stones ceaselessly thrown at him by his killers. He was a holy man for which we celebrate his life.
You may be wondering why we celebrate the life of Stephen right after Christmas? We know from biblical accounts that the martyrdom of Stephen was gruesome. Why would the Church choose such a story to follow right after the day of great celebration, the birthday of the Lord? Won’t a story of martyrdom spoil the joy and lighter moment of the Christmas season? I’ve been wondering about this myself. However, I have a few thoughts.
First, I suggest it has to do with how the Church sees what is our highest joy and value. For the Church, the highest value is not in social praises, in property, in socialization and earthly concerns. It is sharing in the joy of heaven, the heavenly kingdom. The Lord came to preach and establish that kingdom, the reign of God. The greatest treasure is to see the Lord face to face.
For us Christians, we are temporary here on earth. Our eternal home is heaven, a place of peace, joy and love in the Lord. So, the death of a believer is a blessing in disguise. More so is the death of a martyr. A martyr is someone who bore witness with his or her life to faith in Jesus. One of the synonyms for “witness” in Scripture is martyrdom.
Stephen’s life and witness show that for Christians, Jesus, who is born to us, is the ultimate value. To welcome him is to welcome the kingdom. Nothing is more important to the Christian than Christ Jesus; the child who was born in the manger.
Hence, as we continue in the joy of Christmas, how about reflect on what Jesus means to you as a believer? If you aren’t a believer, you may want to investigate what is it that is so precious that thousands of Christians are ready to die for it. Martyrs of the faith chose not to return hate for hate against their persecutors. They gladly accepted the cross because they saw in it the glory of heaven. Or do you suppose their death was meaningless? Certainly not.
May the glorious example of Saint Stephen inspire us to see in the birth of the Lord, our access to heavenly glory. Amen.
Once again, Merry Christmas.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[December 26: Saint Stephen, The First Martyr: Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59; Mt 10:17-22]
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on the bible readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations this Advent Season.