Dear brothers and sisters in Christ! The day before yesterday, in the evening, and yesterday we celebrated Christmas, the feast of Jesus' birth. We contemplated the little child in the crib, sung "silent night", heard the tidings of peace for the world. And suddenly today, in stark contrast, we are clothed in blood-red vestments, we hear of the bloody death of Stephen, and of Jesus' warnings of persecution, death, and hatred for his name's sake. Is there a connection between Christmas and the martyr Stephen? How are we to understand this? Does it mean we shouldn't take the beauty and the peace of Christmas too seriously? It is a nice story, but the reality is different…?
This interpretation would be incorrect. The Church's long tradition of celebrating the memorial of St. Stephen after Christmas does not serve to demote Christmas, but to continue it, and to manifest more clearly an important meaning of the Christmas celebration. Jesus became man, became a child, so that he might also find a place in our hearts. We say that visually presented here, where the Christ child is lying in the heart… [regards the scene in the Church Cyrill and Method]. We fully understand Jesus' birth only in light of his being born in man's heart, in our heart. So after Christmas, the birth of the small Jesus, we contemplate also the birth of the Church, the Church as a child.
Now when Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts, that cannot remain without effect. It really makes a difference whether we let him in or not. When he who can do all things dwells within us, he transforms our hearts, and thus makes a difference in our attitudes towards one another and toward life. We see that in St. Stephen's life. As one of the first deacons he had a twofold task. He was assigned to the service of the tables, the "service of love" to the poor, so that the Apostles would have more time for preaching. But since he also the gift of preaching, he should also perform this ministry of truth. And Stephen, trusting in Jesus, devoted himself whole-heartedly to these tasks. He was stoned to death because his preaching of Jesus as the Son of God was considered blasphemy. Now, we might think that if Stephen, more considerate of the understanding and passion of his Jewish brothers for the oneness of God, had spoken more carefully about Jesus, he would not have been stoned, he could have continued to preach Jesus, he could have done more good….
But St. Stephen make no compromises concerning the truth. He proclaims the Jesus who revealed himself and whom he had come to know. But he does not proclaim this truth by way of violence or hatred, but in love and in self-giving. Until the last moment he forgives the men who kill him. As Jesus prayed for those who killed him, so St. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not count this sin against them!” And his witness, his death was fruitful for the Church. The remembrance of this witness, for example, probably helped Saul later to accept Christ's message, and thereby to become the great Apostle Paul.
St. Stephen is an example to us of faithfulness to Jesus, an example of holding fast to the truth in love, of the way we all should and want to go. This way is not always easy. It is not always easy to avoid deviating too much in one or the other direction: to give up truth for the sake of love, or to give up love for the sake of truth. Sometimes one hears that faithful Christians, in order to be tolerant, must abandon the claim to truth, must not proclaim or hold the faith as truth or even as true, for that leads to intolerance and to hatred. But the example of St. Stephen shows us that the world needs the witness of the truth, and that it is possible to preach this truth in steadfast conviction and yet without violence, but in love and in self-giving.
Let us pray to Jesus, who came into this world as a child, that we have the courage and the wisdom to profess our faith in our family, in our workplace, wherever we are, in a convinced and convincing and loving manner, as St. Stephen did. Amen.