Homily for the Feast of Saint Stephen, 2018
Today, we celebrate the feast of the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen. What a day! Its tone and language seem to contradict the spirit of the season. Why on earth would the Church place this feast after Christmas day? Just when we are talking about the joy and happiness of the birth of the Christ Child, we are confronted with the reality of persecution, suffering, and death.
The language of the readings today doesn’t seem to have any undertone of joy. It is all straight talk, a sort of dungeon language. There is a conspiracy against Stephen. He is misunderstood. Perhaps, it is because he was a Hellenist Christian, that is, one who read the Scriptures in Greek and argued that the Christian Faith could only develop when it is separated from Judaism.
He wasn’t a conformist; dancing to the tone of the conventional wisdom of the time. He was a faithful Christian, who dared to stand out, to speak from the conviction of his new-found faith. He chose to live this faith looking backwards to the manger, where it all began. The story of God becoming man, which contradicted the mythology, philosophy and wisdom of the day.
The language even gets uglier when we read the Gospel from Matthew 10:17-22. “Beware of men”, Jesus warned. “They will hand you over to the Sanhedrins and scourge you in their synagogues… brothers will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all men….”
This is horrible. It isn’t the kind of Gospel we should be reading after Christmas. But it is the Gospel the Church has chosen for us to listen to and to accept today. Why? Because it is part of our story. It is part of the story of the Christ Child. He didn’t come to fulfil our expectations of Him. In fact, He disappointed the people by challenging their expectations of the Messiah.
He was born in the manger, a stable that was filthy, messy and the smell was repugnant. Meanwhile, they expected Him to be born in the palace where everything was neat, perfectly kept with pleasing fragrance. He came as a helpless child, depending on His parents for protection instead of a conquering warrior protecting and defending His people. The Messiah!
He suffered. He could hear all that was happening even as a child lying in the manger. He could hear He was a threat to the powers that be, and they were after Him. He could hear the whispers of His parents: their fear, their anxiety. He could sense the helplessness of His parents who were meant to protect Him. He could feel their frustration. He witnessed their painful suffering.
So, from the very beginning, suffering has been part of the Christmas story. Thus, the joy of Christmas isn’t mere sentimentality. It is something real. It is the fruit of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The One who leads us to all truth; the truth of God’s victory over suffering. This is the cause of great joy. The joy Saint Stephen experienced in his persecution. The joy that made him to see and focus on the glory of God instead of the wickedness of evil.
It is the joy that make sense of our suffering and helps us to look beyond its reality to the reality of God’s saving action. All this is evident in the Christmas story. Even though the Christ Child had to suffer, God had a plan. He saved Him and His parents from Herod and his evil intents. This joy, when it is experienced, it can help us to forgive our enemies and all who have hurt us in one or another just as Saint Stephen did in Acts of the Apostles 6:8-7:59. Happy Christmas!
Fr. Francis Afu