|Stoning of St. Stephen, by Rembrandt|
Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Stephen is celebrated here, but it serves as a none-too-subtle reminder that the Messiah wasn't born yesterday to bring us bright baubles and candy canes; this is serious business.
Serious BusinessLet's rehearse what happened here. The power-brokers back then were not terribly happy with Jesus' early followers. Stephen was one of the major exponents of what we stood for and, as the story goes, when his opponents couldn't out-debate him they simply accused him of "speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God." In short order Stephen was " seized... and brought... before the council," (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6 verses 11 - 12, ).
In his defense Stephen delivered a long and rather blunt speech showing point by point that his people had an abysmal record of obeying God and now had capped it off by crucifying their own Messiah. His listeners did not take it well:
Upon hearing this, his audience could contain themselves no longer. They boiled in fury at Stephen; they clenched their jaws and ground their teeth. But Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit. Gazing upward into heaven, he saw something they couldn’t see: the glory of God, and Jesus standing at His right hand.
Stephen: Look, I see the heavens opening! I see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!
At this, they covered their ears and started shouting. The whole crowd rushed at Stephen, converged on him, dragged him out of the city, and stoned him. They laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, while they were pelting Stephen with rocks.
Stephen (as rocks fell upon him): Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Then he knelt in prayer, shouting at the top of his lungs,
Stephen: Lord, do not hold this evil against them!
Those were his final words; then he fell asleep in death.
One may fault Stephen for tactlessness but not for lack of courage. Jesus offered his people a revolutionary way to be rescued from Rome, rescued from sin, rescued from failing repeatedly to fulfill the mission God had created them for. Even at this late date, when they had utterly failed to recognize their Messiah and turned him over to the Romans for a hideous execution, Jesus' offer still stood. Israel could still fall in behind their King. Stephen saw his duty clear and decided his best shot at shaking up the august leaders of his people was to rub their noses in the truth of what they'd done.
It got him killed, with many more to come.
First of ManyThe line of martyrs with Stephen at its head has by no means come to an end. On this Feast of Stephen googling "latest attacks on christians" immediately brings up a story in USA Today reporting that, "Christmas attacks by Muslim rebels in Christian villages in the southern Philippines left at least 14 people dead." The numbers of Christians in the middle east are rapidly decreasing as they do their best to escape barbaric treatment. But don't think (as so many tend to) that it's purely a problem with radical muslim extremists. Open Doors, a group that monitors Christian persecution, reports that the country most hostile to Jesus of Nazareth's followers is North Korea.
In the comfortable, hermetically sealed western world we inhabit it's easy to assume the days of Christians being martyred for their faith is long past, that it may have happened back in "barbaric" Roman times, but not today. It's particularly easy when we are warm and full from the traditional holiday buying binge.
The Feast of Stephen helps us remember right after Christmas that that's not quite the case.