Liturgical Colour : Red
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, on this day, the day after Christmas, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Stephen, also known as the Protomartyr or the first Martyr of the Church. This came about because as recorded in the early part of the Acts of the Apostles, as we heard in our first reading today, this courageous and faithful servant of God faced great suffering and martyrdom just shortly after the establishment of the Church.
St. Stephen was one of the seven men chosen by the Apostles of the Lord to be those who were commissioned and ordained as Deacons, the originators and the first members of the venerable Holy Order of the Diaconate, as those who were tasked with the care of the needs of the faithful and the distribution of the common goods of the Church, helping the Apostles in their works and ministries.
St. Stephen was one of the seven men chosen from among the faithful, and he was a great and dedicated servant of God, filled with the grace of God and with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, which became evident as he stood trial for the false accusations of blasphemy that were levelled against him by those who deemed him and other Christians as enemies and threats. St. Stephen defended the truth of God courageously and with great wisdom before the Sanhedrin or the council of the elders of the Jewish people.
St. Stephen spoke at great lengths on the history of God’s saving works among His people and His plan for the salvation of us all. He spoke courageously and without fear on the arrival of the Messiah in Jesus Christ, Whom the Sanhedrin had just recently rejected and sent to Pontius Pilate to be condemned to death on the Cross. St. Stephen spoke of how God has performed His wonders and works of salvation despite the rejection and stubbornness showed by His people.
St. Stephen was hated and attacked because he courageously stood up for the truth, and he mentioned exactly what the Lord Himself had said when He was on trial before the Sanhedrin, that the Son of Man is seated at the right hand of God, which made the members of the Sanhedrin to become even angrier at him. They attacked and stoned St. Stephen to death, which he accepted gracefully, forgiving his enemies and killers just as the Lord Himself had done.
We may be wondering why we remember the painful and terrible martyrdom of one of God’s faithful servants just right after the joyful celebrations of Christmas. But in fact, this is a timely reminder for us all that Christmas itself cannot exist and do not have its full significance without linking it to the greater scheme of the whole plan of God’s salvation, and that includes the Passion, the suffering, death and eventually Resurrection of the Lord.
The same Child born in Bethlehem more than two millennia ago and celebrated every year in Christmas is the very same One Who in just thirty-three years later, would bear the most painful and terrible burden of the Cross. It was because of what happened during the Passion and the Resurrection of the Lord that made Christmas fully meaningful, for the Child born and celebrated on Christmas day is then not just like any other children, but the Child destined to be the Saviour of the world.
And to become the followers of Christ just as St. Stephen had done, and many others of our holy predecessors had done, it requires us to be ready to face persecution, oppression, rejection, suffering and all sorts of things that Our Lord Himself had endured. If the world has rejected the Son of God and its Saviour, the Lord Jesus Himself said that the same will also happen to those who follow Him.
Indeed, not all the time we will face trials and challenges. Throughout the long history of the Church there had been good times and moments too, when people enthusiastically welcomed the truth and salvation of God, kingdoms and nations were converted to the true faith among many other examples, but this must not then make us forget of the many sacrifices and challenges that our predecessors including that of St. Stephen had to endure throughout the history of the Church and the works of God’s salvation.
Today we celebrate this feast in honour of St. Stephen because we remember the courage he has shown and faith he has in the Lord, that he willingly endured the painful suffering and martyrdom for the sake of the Lord and His people, in becoming great witness of his faith. And at the same time we are also reminded that as Christians, all of us who believe in Christ, the Child born the Saviour of the world that we have just celebrated at Christmas, we must be ready to defend our faith in the manner that St. Stephen had done, not with confrontation or violence, but with wisdom of God.
The Lord Himself in our Gospel passage kind of foretold what would happen to St. Stephen and many others of His followers, as they would suffer for Him. And yet, He also reassured them of His providence and protection, and how the Holy Spirit Himself will be upon them all, giving them the strength, courage and wisdom, as what we have evidently seen in St. Stephen the holy martyr. Are we able to follow in his footsteps?
As we progress through this Christmas season therefore, let us all always remember the strength and spirit of St. Stephen in committing himself to the Lord, and let us all therefore always remember that Christmas and all of its joys came about because of the Lord Jesus, our Saviour, Who should be at the very centre and focus of all of our celebration and happiness in this blessed season.
Shall we renew our faith and rededicate ourselves to God this Christmas season, by endeavouring to love first of all, God with greater love and fidelity, and then also our fellow brothers and sisters, sharing our wonderful blessings and joy, the joy of Christmas, with one another? May the Lord continue to be with us and watch over us, His beloved people, and may He bless us all in our works and deeds. Amen.