The gates of heaven were opened for blessed Stephen, who was found to be first among the Martyrs and therefore is crowned triumphant in heaven. – Entrance Antiphon for the feast of St. Stephen
After midnight, in the first moments of Christmas, I stood before the altar clothed in white to celebrate the coming of our king. Today, I stood at the same altar covered in red, the blood of the martyrs. It was St. Stephen’s day. There were no new faces in the congregation this morning. Five of us, mostly mature in years, gathered to remember Stephen. I watched many of them struggle up to the high altar to receive the bread and wine. The twelve days of Christmas had begun in earnest.
Culture has the Christmas season upside down. It does not lead up to December 25. Christmas is not a mere moment to be consumed before moving on to the next opportunity to take our money and pander to our sentiments. For the Christian, the Christmas season flows from December 25, and the first thing the church speaks to us about during Christmastide is a martyr.
In the few moments I could spare for a homily, I reflected on how remembering the death of Stephen helps us recall what the child king wrought. The child became the man who died for our sins. The man is also the God incarnate who could not be contained by death. Now death no longer causes us fear. Stephen, unafraid, dying with same words of forgiveness uttered by Jesus is an exegesis of Christmas.
Recovering St Stephen’s day might go a long way towards helping us appreciate wonderful change the incarnation effected in the world, transforming death itself into an occasion for rejoicing.