The presents have been opened, the feast has been devoured, the wonderful day of Christmas has once again come and gone. Yet here we are. Life rolls on much as it did before the celebrations, carols, lights, and parties. The old holiday favorites might still be playing on the TV but our eagerness to watch them has diminished drastically. Even so, as a child the day after Christmas was a big day, especially if you got something really cool, like a new bike or skateboard. For it was the day when you met up with your friends and everyone compared their gifts, a day when you got to show off all the cool things you got. Things went on but not exactly as they had before. There was something new, something exciting that had happened. Of course, the first Christmas, the coming of the Word of God in human flesh, had massive consequences, not just for Mary and Joseph and some shepherds tending their flocks, but for the whole world. Something new had come that changed the course of human history. And today we learn about the consequences that come from Christmas, consequences which take their toll in the life and death of the Church’s first martyr, Stephen.
In the early days of the Christian Church the apostles began to be overwhelmed with the task laid at their feet. The Word of God which they proclaimed formed a fellowship and that fellowship had needs. There were people who needed caring for, people hurting and hungry and in need of compassion. And such care, while good and faithful, was taking up all the time of the Apostles. So much so, they could not focus on their main task of preaching the Good News. Their solution was to choose some from their midst who they could rely on to take care of these things. Among the seven men chosen was Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Stephen turned out to be quite the preacher of the Word. He spoke with unshakable wisdom and the power of the Spirit moved the hearts of many who heard him.
Christmas was the coming of man’s salvation the arrival of hope and confidence in the face of our sins, and Stephen proclaimed this with great authority. The consequence of Christmas was the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, and the consequence was Stephen could not help but make it known to others. In fact, he was having so much success that those who opposed his teaching, those who sought to squash the faithful, began to bring false witnesses against him, to try to silence him once for all. Like our Lord before him, they seized him and brought him to the council on trumped-up charges. In response Stephen launches into a powerful sermon about how they stand in the tradition of their fathers who resist the Holy Spirit and persecute the prophets that are sent to them. He makes it clear they are the ones who betrayed and murdered the Righteous One of God. And with such words Stephen becomes the first martyr of the Christian faith.
They are enraged by what he says. They cry out against him and even stop their ears in order to silence the truth he speaks. But he just keeps on speaking, keeps on confessing the faith so they turn to violence. To stop his proclamation, they take up rocks and silence him for good. The consequences of God being born are felt upon the flesh of St. Stephen, as their brutality and hatred of the truth is laid upon him. Now this should not shock any of us. I mean think of the way St. John spoke about Christmas. He said, “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” He says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.” Or Simeon, when he holds the Christ child in his arms says to Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” Or how St. Peter will quote Isaiah and remind us He is a “stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.” There would be consequences and there are ramifications to this great working of God.
But the remembrance of St. Stephen is not just a cautionary tale about the lengths people will go to silence the Word of God. This is not a day warning about the dangers of the faith or even the cost of discipleship. No, for there is encouragement, boldness, and courage in the story of Stephen. Think about it. He is not a man cowering in the corner or retreating to a safe space. No, he is speaking the truth in love. He is like Daniel in the lion’s den or the three men in the fiery furnace. He goes willfully into the danger, trusting his cause and his eternity to the God of life and salvation. He fully embraces our Lord’s exhortation that we should not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Stephen serves us as an inspiring example.
God has come among us. God himself bears your sins, takes your curse, dies in your place, and then rises from the dead. He, who was born of Mary all those years ago promises to you this day you are forgiven, you are loved, and you will enter eternal paradise. This age with all its suffering, all its tears, all its trials and adversity will pass away, but you will enter into an age to come. This too is a consequence of Christmas. This too is part of the story of St. Stephen. As we have come through Christmas, we carry the same promises Stephen trusted. The same Good News which drove him to faithfully preach the Word of God is the Good News you know.
As they are stoning him, Stephen goes the way of our Lord Himself. Just as he proclaimed the Good News in his life, so he embraces all it means in his death. We read that he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Like our Lord, he proclaims forgiveness for those who kill him. He commits his cause to God and trust in the Word.
There are consequences to Christmas. There is a new thing which has happened. The usual ebb and flow of life can dull our remembrance of this. We forget the new thing that has happened, the boldness that it inspires, and the courageous life to which we are called. But it is the day after Christmas, and like children showing off our new bike to the neighborhood, we ought to be out there speaking the truth with love. St. Stephen reminds you how you are agents of forgiveness. So, go ahead and let loose. There is nothing in this age to fear. You are the forgiven, the baptized, the saints of God. You are free to forgive others, to love them, and to tell the Good News of Christmas with all its wonderous consequences.