Friday, December 25, 2015

Whoever Endures

When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together.  Acts 7:54-57 

“Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.”  Matthew 10:21-22

Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

The tinsel has not fallen from the tree.  The trash is not even out at the curb filled with torn paper, disposed ribbons and turkey bones.  Yet we find ourselves already contemplating the first martyr.  The baby who was part of the marginalized poor of Palestine is marginalized on his second day of life – taking the side stage while St. Stephen moves to the center.  This faith cannot be confined to Bethlehem.  This faith must move in, move on and move out. 

The redeeming Incarnation is one of the two great mysteries of Christianity. This birth cannot stand alone without the message of the Cross of Jesus – complete with his trial, execution and Resurrection. As a pair of mysteries, they become Stephen’s inheritance and our inheritance. 

Spoiler Alert:  On one day (Christmas) we see the baby of the poor couple laying in the feeding trough used by cattle.  Angels fill the sky with light and love.  On the next, St. Stephen tells us, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”  Everything that happens between these two events are made for our faith. St. Fulgentius of Ruspe tied these two events together:

And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the King, it later shone forth in His soldier. [St. Stephen’s] love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment.

Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey's end. [i]

Like John the Baptist, Stephen criticized the people for not following God’s commandments.  Committed, fearless, and forgiving, St. Stephen died as Christ died – asking God to forgive his enemies. The patron of stone masons is stoned to death at the feet of Saul the Persecutor, foreboding a fearful chapter in the life of the church until Saul experiences his own conversion. 

The secular joy of Christmas cannot be separated from the pain of crowded shopping, gifts to be returned, paying too, much. 

An anonymous poet once wrote that the sky would have no rainbow if the eye had no tear.  Christmas would have no joy without Good Friday to give it meaning.  Good Friday would have no meaning without Easter Sunday Resurrection.  Easter Sunday would have no meaning on its own unless we picked up our cross daily, like Stephen, to follow Jesus.

Charity at Christmastime is a custom that goes back to the earliest

Because St. Stephen was the first Deacon, and because one of the Deacons' role in the Church is to care for the poor, St. Stephen's Day is often the day for giving food, money, and other items to servants, service workers, and the needy (it is known as "Boxing Day" in some English-speaking parts of the world).[ii]

In the carol about Good King Wenceslas, we have three critical roles -- the good king, cruel weather, and a man so poor he is driven to scrounge for firewood on one of the coldest nights of the year.[iii]  The carol tells the story of a Wenceslaus I (actual named Duke Vaclav) courageously braving harsh winter weather to give alms to the poor the day after Christmas. His page almost gives up the struggle against the harsh cold, but is enabled to go on, motivated by the fortitude of his king. As the poor man is aided in this hymn, so too are we called to action. We also recall the last verse of the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas:”

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

“You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”  May you find blessings this holy season.

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