Yesterday we celebrated the birth of Jesus, savior and lord. Today we commemorate the death of Stephen, deacon and martyr. The juxtaposition of these two days in the church year may seem strange: one day, the glory of Christmas; the next day, the horror of martyrdom.
I suspect this jars us particularly because of the sentimentalism that mists through much of our Christmas celebration. In many ways, the songs, colors, images, words, and rituals of our modern Christmas pan across the realities of the birth of Jesus with a soft – very soft – focus. We light the scene in our crèches and in our hearts – a new-born baby with his mother and father, angels, shepherds, animals, and even adoring strangers – with a very warm glow.
There is good reason for this – at least to an extent. As the angels heralded, Jesus’ birth is God’s good news of great joy for all people. In a world grinding in darkness for these long ages, we have such need of good news, such need of the truth, beauty, and goodness Jesus lives into our existence. Wonder, joy, and festivity are sublimely proper responses!
At the same time, marking the martyrdom of Stephen the day after marking Christmas reminds us of the keen realities of Jesus’ coming into the world. Some of them are just the mundane, so to speak, realities of being born. Birth is labor. Birth promises joy, but it can mean anxiety and trauma. How much more all of these things for Mary and Joseph, going through all of this in a stable, at the margins of society!
And more, while the birth of Jesus is good news of new life, it is new life through death. We all are born and eventually will die, but Jesus was born to die. Through Advent and the Christmas season we celebrate the one who was born for Good Friday. Judgment and death are integral to the Christmas season because they are integral to the birth and life of Jesus. We see this in terrible realities collected around Christmas. Not all embrace the good news of Jesus’ birth – hence, the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem by order of Herod, and later the martyrdom of Stephen.
Let us, to be sure, rejoice at the birth of Jesus. Let us mark it with wonder, joy, and festivity! But let us also remember the hard realities Jesus bore, the hard realities his faithful followers may also bear, on the way from Bethlehem to Calvary to Heaven!