St. Stephen, Martyr
Feast of Stephen.21 “A World Mostly Irreligious, Pt. 3: One Of Those Saint Things” Acts 6-7
We have been hearing the last two days, how, in a world mostly irreligious, most don’t get the whole Christmas thing—“Jesus is the reason for the season” and all. We heard on Christmas Eve from the shepherds how they were driven to the margins of their society, yet, that was exactly the place (one dark, cold night outside Bethlehem) where the Angel met them and led them to Christ our newborn King.
We heard from John yesterday, on Christmas Day, how, in a dark age, the light shines brightly but most find it glaring and try to seize it, shut it down, make it stop! because they just don’t get it. They don’t get how God could become man (surely the finite is not capable of the infinite!?) or how by God dying he could bring life and light to a dark world, or why, even if he could, he would? Everyone knows Darwin was right that we live in a random, material world and we are material girls (and boys) moved only by Nietzsche’s Will to Power. 🙂
Today we have the 3rd and final part of our Christmas Sermon Series: “A World Mostly Irreligious” and the Stoning of Stephen. Because: nothing says “Have a holly, jolly Christmas!” like the stoning to death of Stephen, now does it? “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas! The best time of the year!”
What sheepskin-wearing hipster-doofus stuck the martyrdom of St. Stephen on boxing day, the day after Christmas?!? How do you follow up the most beautiful and charming of church festivals with the most bloody and gory? What is the point? And what was wrong with good King Wenceslas? “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen/ When the snow lay round about/ Deep and crisp and even/…” In case you’ve forgotten the legend, the 10th century Bohemian Duke Wenceslas (he was made a king posthumously, centuries later, after being beatified) was known for tramping around in the snow taking alms to the poor.
Supposedly, one brutal winter’s night, on the Feast of Stephen, December 26, Wenceslas and his servant went tramping through a blizzard to take leftover roast breast from the royal Christmas feast to a poor peasant miles away. Wenceslas (like Einstein) often forgot to wear socks or shoes, even in winter, and didn’t realize how deep the snow was, or how cold it had got. His page was freezing to death when Wenceslas said: “Walk in my footsteps”; and the page found the king’s footsteps melted the snow and warmed the earth like summer so that it was a pleasant journey—like walking on a Caribbean beach in January. Maybe the old bohemian generated tremendous body heat? Really high metabolism? Or maybe it was just… one of those saint things?
Still…what kind of madman thinks the best way to celebrate the feast of Stephen is risking your life tramping through a blizzard to take roast beast to some poor peasant? Did they all have a death wish? Even if St. Wenceslas’ footsteps really did melt the snow and warm the ground like a Caribbean beach, it’s still reckless and foolhardy, for safety’s sake! What was he thinking?!
Well maybe he was getting it, the whole Christ-Christmas-martyrdom thing? After all, Jesus was born to die and came wrapped like a mummy!—kind of an ominous sign, don’t you think? Now this, I think, is what good King Wenceslas got from the martyrdom of Stephen and the birth of Christ: we don’t have the snow here, today, to emulate the patron saint of all bohemians, exactly; but, we can still follow in his footsteps which are not only Stephen’s, but Christ the Lord’s, too! And maybe, tramping after those old bohemians, their whole “saint thing” might rub off on us, as well?
The shepherds, that first Christmas morning, were following in the footsteps of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob who were pastoral nomads. In the early 6th century BC, the prophet Jeremiah (during the last siege of Jerusalem) was sent to the Rechabite clan and told them to drink wine. They refused because their father Rechab told them they must live as nomads, travelers with no home on earth, journeying always to the heavenly city, traveling light, nothing to tie them down and if they started drinking wine, they’d like it, buy fields and plant vineyards and settle down and make this earth their home and forget we are all travelers to the heavenly city.
The shepherds of Bethlehem were following in those holy nomadic footsteps.
So was Stephen. He was a Greek speaking Jew, far from home; and he learned what all the faithful nomads learned: when you tell the dark agers that the worst of their darkness is that they think it’s light, you won’t be popular. But when they demanded he stop saying Jesus was going to destroy this old world and make a better one, Stephen told the truth instead of the comfortable lie.
Which enraged them. They plugged their ears and rushed at Stephen and stoned him. Now, most of us would be a little chaffed at being stoned (with rocks 😉 for simply telling the truth and pointing out how stupid everyone else is being. Stephen learned how true the saying is that “the truth hurts”. But it only hurts for a second. Instead of cursing them and railing on them, Stephen knelt down as he was dying and prayed for his murderers that God would not hold this sin against them, since they were very stupid people and (as Aristotle well recognized) you simply cannot be Good and Stupid at the same time, so cut them some slack; forgive them. They can’t help it.
Which only made them madder and throw the rocks harder, which hastened Stephen’s death. But as he was falling asleep (the faithful never die, they just fall asleep in Jesus) he saw the heavens open, Jesus standing at the Father’s right hand, beckoning him Home to Aslan’s Country.
This is the whole saint thing: Jesus was born to die in order to take the stinger out of death. If we will only let him gather us to Himself (like his own little chicks walking in his footsteps by faith, cross-ways) we’ll find death itself lies vanquished and all the bad stuff—the world’s hate, the snow, the lies, the rocks, is just wind in our sails speeding us towards Heaven. If death ain’t nothin’ but a thang that gets us to heaven quicker and cooler, well then: a walk through a freezing blizzard becomes like a walk on a Caribbean beach and “money’s just something you throw from the back of a train/ got a headful of lightning, hat full of rain.” (Always take the long way home!).
When you don’t have to worry about staying safe, you’ll find the universe runs on this love of Christ: the faster you run behind him, the more his joy lights up every step. Maybe Stephen and Wenceslas aren’t crazy, just… marvelously sane?
A 16th century Spanish monk Fray Luis de Leon got in trouble for translating the bible (waxing too evangelical, like another Augustinian monk of his time, Luther). The Spanish Inquisition (which you never expect!) imprisoned him for years. On his release, de Leon wrote a poem how it all helped him focus on Jesus a little better…
Ryan Wilson wrote this poem on Fray Luis leaving prison:
“Here is the place envy and lies/ Pent me behind a prison gate./ Oh, happy is the humble state/ Of that wise man so sage he flies/ This wicked world that’s filled with hate,/ And with his humble home and board/ In some delightful Country spot,/ His one companion there the LORD,/ Lives out his life alone, ignored/ By envy, envying none’s lot.”
These are footsteps in which all may walk; it’s one of those saint things. Happy Feast of Stephen. Merry Christmas! Amen.