Tuesday, December 1, 2009

December 2009 Parish Letter

“Heavenly Father, in the midst of our sufferings for the sake of Christ grant us grace to follow the example of the first martyr, Stephen, that we also may look to the One who suffered and was crucified on our behalf and pray for those who do us wrong . . . .”

[Collect for St. Stephen’s Day]

The name is familiar to us in this Christmas Season. Though we do not find it in our hymnbooks, a carol known to many of us refers to December 26, St. Stephen’s Day. Sung to a medieval Swedish melody, the words of John Mason Neale tell us first: “Good King Wenceslas looked out / On the feast of Stephen / When the snow lay round about / Deep and crisp and even.” It is an interesting song, but what does a Bohemian king have to do with a man from the Apostolic Era?

The significant events of Stephen’s life are found in the Acts of the Apostles. He is listed among the seven men chosen by the congregation in Jerusalem to serve the physical needs of the Greek-speaking believers: “[The apostles said]: ‘Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”(Acts 6:3-6) As a deacon of the Church, Stephen’s concern was for the welfare of his fellow disciples of Jesus.

But as is true for all who follow Jesus, the concern that one has for their fellow disciples’ welfare is also matched by a concern for knowing and keeping the truth about Jesus. That is clearly seen in Stephen’s life. For as one “full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” Stephen spoke with great power concerning the identity and work of Jesus Christ. In the Epistle Reading for the Feast of Stephen, it is written: “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.”(Acts 6:8) This included the proclamation of who Jesus was and did for the salvation of the world. Even in the face of opposition, Stephen was bold in his work: “But [his opponents] could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.”(Acts 6:10)

When Stephen’s wisdom could not be withstood, his opponents turned to treachery in order to eliminate him. Through a method similarly used against Jesus, the Sanhedrin and high priest tried Stephen for blasphemy: “And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.’”(Acts 6:12-14) Stephen’s trial would lead to his becoming the first martyr of the Church. Never wavering in his speech, Stephen laid out to the Sanhedrin the truth about Jesus’ words and works. But for that, he paid with his earthly life: “But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.”(Acts 7:57-58)

So how do this man of faith and his earthly demise get wrapped up into our Christmas celebrations? The selection of December 26 as his feast day is likely connected to the date of his martyrdom. But the themes of Stephen’s life and death also reflect the truth about Jesus. The pattern of Jesus’ life is what Stephen followed. Jesus Himself was concerned with the physical welfare of His fellow believers. Recall how many different incidents of healing that Jesus performed. But Jesus was even more concerned with revealing the truth about God the Father, especially His desire to provide salvation for all who believed in Him. That concern drove Him to give what was costliest, His own life, for the deliverance of others from death.

But what did Jesus receive for His acts? Even from birth, He was under threat: Herod sought to destroy kill Him. Jesus was constantly overcoming the impediments set in His way by the elders, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. His acts of compassion were called unlawful, scandalous, even blasphemous. The treachery of Jesus’ opponents led to His death. And yet, Jesus persevered, full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit like Stephen, but to a greater degree. Enduring all of the shame and hatred, Jesus went from the wood of the manger in Bethlehem’s cave to the wood of the cross and Jerusalem’s grave to bring salvation to us. And as was replicated by Stephen at his martyrdom, Jesus prayed for pardon for His accusers, that they would believe in Him and be saved by His acts.

Death is part of the Christmas story. Whether it be the commemoration of the Holy Innocents on December 28 or Stephen’s martyrdom on December 26, the Church is faced with the reality of death at Christmastide. But this is how salvation comes to us, how Jesus fulfills the meaning of His Name. The Feast of Stephen brings to mind the generosity that we show to one another as Christians, a generosity that reflects the selflessness that Jesus showed to us.

A carol found in our hymnbook puts this in our hearts and minds: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, / The cross be borne for me, for you; / Hail, hail the Word made flesh, / The babe, the son of Mary!” That is Jesus’ destiny. That is how the eternal love of the Father was shown to us and how the wisdom from above was put on display. Filled with that wisdom and the Holy Spirit, we find our hope in the Babe of Bethlehem who died and rose for our salvation. Changed by what Christ has done for us, we can be like Stephen: showing Christ’s love by addressing the physical needs of our fellow believers—and even those who have yet to know Christ—and holding fast the truth of Christ’s work. May we follow the example of the deacon who was the Church’s first martyr!

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