Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmastide - Martyrdom

Stoning of St. Stephen, by Rembrandt
Even though his feast day is not technically connected with Christmas, it's interesting to me that the first day after it is the day Jesus' followers commemorate the execution of Stephen, the Christian Movement's first martyr. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Stephen is celebrated here, but it serves as a none-too-subtle reminder that the Messiah wasn't born yesterday to bring us bright baubles and candy canes; this is serious business...

Let's rehearse what happened here. The powers-brokers back then were not terribly happy with Jesus' early followers. Stephen was one of the major exponents of what we stood for and, as the story goes, when his opponents couldn't out-debate him they simply accused him of "insulting Moses and God." In short order Stephen was "dragged... away, and brought... before the Jerusalem Council," (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6 verses 11 - 12, Common English Bible).

In his defense Stephen delivered a long and rather blunt speech showing point by point that his people had an abysmal record of obeying God and now had capped it off by crucifying their own Messiah. His listeners did not take it well:
Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!” At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.
(Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7 verses 54 - 60, CEB)

One may fault Stephen for tactlessness but not for lack of courage. Jesus offered his people a revolutionary way to be rescued from Rome, rescued from sin, rescued from failing repeatedly to fulfill the mission God had created them for. Even at this late date, when they had utterly failed to recognize their Messiah and turned him over to the Romans for a hideous execution, Jesus' offer still stood. Israel could still fall in behind their King. Stephen saw his duty clear and decided his best shot at shaking up the august leaders of his people was to rub their noses in the truth of what they'd done.

It got him killed, with many more to come.

On this day we are reminded that the line of martyrs with Stephen at its head has by no means come to an end, as dozens of Jesus' people are blown up in Nigeria for celebrating his birth. Meanwhile, in the morning email, I've just received another reminder of the torture and death Christians are going through in North Korea and China, including the woman in this video.

In the comfortable, hermetically sealed western world we inhabit it's easy to assume the days of Christians being martyred for their faith is long past, that it may have happened back in "barbaric" Roman times, but not today. It's particularly easy when we are warm and full from the traditional holiday buying binge.

The Feast of Stephen helps us remember right after Christmas that that's not quite the case.

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