Liturgical Colour : Red
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today as we come to this day after the Christmas Day, we celebrate together as the Church the Feast of St. Stephen, the Protomartyr or the very first Martyr of the Church. This means that St. Stephen the first one to die for his faith in God, in giving his life for the sake of the glory of God and in the midst of his mission. We may wonder why just immediately right after the most joyful celebration of Christmas Day we suddenly enter into this sombre occasion of the memory of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, but in truth, this celebration of St. Stephen and his martyrdom is an important reminder for all of us what Christmas is truly all about. St. Stephen reminds us all that Christmas is about celebrating the coming of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Who brought into our midst the truth about the love of God for each one of us, and which truth is the reason why St. Stephen died courageously in defending that truth and Good News from those who tried to silence him and the Church.
Contextually, back then, when St. Stephen began his ministry as one of the first seven Deacons appointed to minister to the Church and to the people of God, it was still not long after the suffering, crucifixion and the death of the Lord Jesus on the Cross, as well as His Resurrection from the dead on the third day after the Crucifixion. The Sanhedrin, or the Jewish High Council which members were mostly opposed to the Lord and His teachings, tried to hide the truth by spreading lies and falsehoods, bribing the Roman soldiers sent to guard the tomb to speak up with the false words that the Apostles and the other disciples of the Lord had come to steal His Body from the tomb while the soldiers were sleeping. They tried to hide the truth of the Lord’s words, how everything happened just as He had predicted it, and hence, showing that what they had done in trying to persecute the Lord and His ministry, had been flawed and mistaken in the first place.
Yet, the High Priest and the other chief priests, many of the most influential members of the Pharisees and the Sadducees both continued to maintain their lies and attempted to silence the Apostles and the disciples of the Lord, persecuting the Church and arresting all those who professed to believe in the Lord and His Good News. The Sanhedrin commanded them all to stay silent and not to speak or teach anymore in the Name of the Lord, but they could not silence the courageous and most faithful servants of God. Those servants, including that of St. Stephen, the Apostles and the many disciples and followers of the Lord chose to continue to proclaim the Lord and His truth, the words of wisdom and the salvation that He has promised to all of us, even when they face a certainty of oppression, suffering and even death at the hands of their enemies.
That was how St. Stephen ended up facing his martyrdom, just as we heard in our first reading passage today. St. Stephen had been most vocal and active in his ministry among the people, distributing the goods to the faithful. That made him marked and targeted by his enemies who then plotted against him and tried to destroy him, just as we heard. They made false statements and accusations, but all of those could not hold against the wisdom of God found in St. Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit and the gifts that the Spirit bestowed on him. That was also the moment when St. Stephen courageously defended his faith before the whole assembly of the Sanhedrin and their supporters, sharing the wisdom and truth of God to dispel the falsehoods and lies they had spread.
That was exactly how the Lord Himself had predicted would happen to His disciples as we heard in our Gospel passage today, and how He told them all that they had no need to be afraid because God and His Holy Spirit would always be with them, and the Wisdom of God would guide and strengthen them against their enemies and all those who plotted against them. St. Stephen showed great courage despite facing certainty of suffering and death, and did what he could to defend his faith and the truth of God, proclaiming the words of truth before everyone and still hoping that they would finally listen to reason and turn away from their wicked ways. Although many of those people continued to harden their hearts and minds, and stoned St. Stephen to death, the servant of God died in peace knowing that he had done what he could for the Lord and His people.
The death of St. Stephen, his suffering and everything that he had to endure for the sake of the Lord all are reminders for us that this Christmas we are all called to be the witnesses of the Lord and proclaim His truth in our own communities, as those who have seen and received the fullness of truth just as St. Stephen had, through the gift and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and through the teachings of the Church. Christmas is not just a time of great rejoicing and celebrations, but also a time for us to remember that Christ is the Love of God personified and manifested in the flesh, Who has come down into our midst to dwell among us and to gather us all into His presence and embrace once again. It is this same truth which St. Stephen had suffered and died from, defending it from all those who rejected the Lord as their Saviour.
Therefore, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us all consider carefully as we progress through this Christmas season that we do not end up forgetting the real reason why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. Christmas is celebrated because we truly honour the Lord Who has come into our midst, reaching out to us sinners, as we see the love which He has for all of us, manifested in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, born that day in Bethlehem in Judea, fulfilling all the promises which God has made to us. And it is imperative that we stand by Him and His truth, and make Him the centre of our celebrations so that not only we rejoice in His coming, but more and more people may come to see the truth and love of God and therefore come to believe in Him as well. That is what St. Stephen had done, in reminding everyone, including all of us, of the reason why we celebrate Christmas.
Christmas is truly about a celebration of the love of God which has allowed us all to have hope today, because without God and His love, there can be no hope for us, and we would have been doomed to eternal damnation because of our disobedience and multitudes of sins. It was by the suffering, death and ultimately, the Resurrection of the Lord, our Saviour that we have received healing and rejuvenation, hope and new strength, which He has provided us through His coming into this world, His actions and providence by His ministry in the world, as He came offering us this new hope and the light that He delivers unto us all, and by which we have seen the Light of His salvation. And because God has loved us so much that He was even willing to suffer and die for our sake, should we not then love Him in the same way as well?
Christ’s love is what encouraged and strengthened St. Stephen, that guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, he chose to stand by his faith in God. Let us all therefore be inspired in the same way by the love of Our Lord and Saviour, which He has shown us from His Cross, and also by the courage of St. Stephen, holy martyr and most devout servant of God. May the Lord bless us all and may He grant us His strength to persevere against all the challenges and trials we may have to face in life, because of His love and truth. Amen.