Of all the days of Christmas, the second day has had the most durability as a celebration. It’s Boxing Day in the UK and Commonwealth with an extra day off for many people. In the Eastern Church it is the Synaxis of the Theotokos. (A synaxis is often like a mini-afterfeast for one of the people involved what is commemorated in the big feast.) In the Western Church, it is the feast of St Stephen.
I don’t want to take away from the Theotokos and all the work she put into that first Christmas. You have to admit, if anyone had to work hard to make Christmas happen, it was her. But I want us to think for a moment about Stephen. He is the first person recorded in Scripture who gave his life for his testimony of the Gospel. He experienced first hand the lack of peace on earth or goodwill toward men when the Messiah is rejected.
When his accusers bring him in front of the Sanhedrin, they see his face as the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). As N. T. Wright notes, he found himself standing, as the Temple was claimed to stand, at the overlap of heaven and earth. That’s why Jesus referred to Himself, as this temple which will be destroyed and raised up in three days. He was the first and true overlap of heaven and earth.
When we share the gospel, we need to be like Stephen. Our hearers need to be able to see that we stand at the overlap of heaven and earth. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit.
“But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God”. (Acts 7:55) The description of the appearance of Stephen before the Sanhedrin is that of a person reflecting some of God’s glory as a result of being in His presence. When we have been in his presence, we will reflect some of His glory. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) When we behold the glory of the Father in Christ, we, too should be filled with grace and truth, just as Stephen was before the Sanhedrin.
We cannot forget that Stephen, full of grace and truth, full of the Holy Spirit, with the face of angel and of the presence of God, was moments away from death. Just as the Incarnate God would die as a result of the grace and truth He showed, so would St Stephen. Stephen reminds us of the cost of discipleship. Stephen’s was to be stoned to death.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would also become a martyr, said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We are all called to take our cross daily. We are all called to die those those things in us that also oppose peace on earth and goodwill toward men. We may not have to surrender our temporary earthly tabernacle to soldiers of the Prince of Darkness as our brothers Stephen and Dietrich were required to do. Nonetheless there is a war in our members – a battle constantly raging – a fight to the death.
So in this joyous season of Christmas we think about death. It is a theme we will see repeated. This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Jesus was born in order to die.