Friday, December 26, 2008

St. Stephen's Day

2 Chronicles 24:17-22
v. 22a King Joash did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah's father, had shown him, but killed his son.

Today we remember Stephen, deacon, and first martyr of the followers of Jesus, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is the account of the murder of the prophet Zechariah during the reign of King Joash of Judah. The reign of King Joash was a time when the people of Judah turned away from the worship of Yahweh. They abandoned the worship of the Temple. Zechariah stood in the Temple and called them back, but instead they murdered him there.

Immediately after Christmas we get three uncomfortable feasts: St. Stephen, St. John and the Holy Innocents. They depict three kinds of martyrdom: "red," i.e., the deliberate murder of a disciple (Stephen); "white," i.e., exile (John); and the death of innocents (Holy Innocents). Each is a way of the powerful to strike back at the message that they are no longer in charge, but God is King and Jesus is Lord.

But why right after Christmas? Holy Innocents can be explained as it is part of Matthew's Christmas story, albeit an unpleasant one. Perhaps, too, John can be explained because he was the great writer of the incarnation poem at the beginning of his Gospel ("The Word was made flesh and lived among us"). But Stephen? What is he doing here?

What all three seem to be reminding us is that the astounding good news we have celebrated at Christmas is not good news for everyone. There are the ones who come up short in Mary's song: "He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly." If this is, indeed, the good news, then it is natural for the mighty to fight back. And the story of these three martyrs, the "Comites Christi" ("Friends of Christ") as they are sometimes called, bears witness to this reality.

In many ways we increasingly live in a "post-Christian world," but we still do not, as the Church, expect much opposition to our message. Apathy about it, perhaps, but not opposition, especially of a violent nature. We can give thanks for this but also wonder if it is also a sign of how cold our message has grown. If we were as bold as Mary in her song, as bold as Zechariah in the Temple or Stephen in front of the religious authorities, would some of us suffer the ultimate penalty?

That is probably a question we do not want to have to answer, and that is OK. But the message of these three days should not be lost on us: the good news we proclaim is still not good news for everyone, especially the powerful. And when we are the ones also exercising the power in society, then we have some very serious reflection to do and choices to make or the good news that is on our lips means nothing at all.