The Word Among Us

Advent 2019 Issue

Bringing Heaven to Earth

St. Stephen embodies the true Christmas spirit.

By: Kathryn Elliott

Bringing Heaven to Earth: St. Stephen embodies the true Christmas spirit. by Kathryn Elliott

For many of us, the day after Christmas is spent returning gifts, visiting relatives, or taking down our Christmas trees. But liturgically speaking, December 26 has traditionally been seen as the day to go out and live in the spirit of Christ—the Christmas spirit.

That’s one of the main reasons, in fact, that we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr, on this day. Just as the feast of Christmas celebrates Jesus’ role in God’s plan of salvation, the feast of St. Stephen points out how we might respond to the great gift of Emmanuel. It’s as if on December 26, we say, “God is with us. What should we do now?”

We can begin to answer this question by turning to history. A tradition begun in the Middle Ages was for well-off Catholics to celebrate St. Stephen’s Day by giving gifts to the people of the lower classes. Churches distributed the money in alms boxes on that day, and people who enjoyed material blessings went out of their way to share some of those blessings with the poor. A favorite Christmas carol depicts this tradition in the person of St. Wenceslas, the “Good King” who gave food, wine, and firewood to a shivering peasant.

But that’s not all. It’s no accident that Stephen’s special day comes right after the birth of Jesus. His placement at the head of the cycle of saints was a deliberate decision made some time in the fourth century by Western Church leaders to encourage us to take a closer look at the life and death of Stephen. As we do so, more and more “consequences” of Jesus’ birth—on earth and in the hearts of his followers—emerge. We see that Jesus’ coming spurs us to care for the poor, to love our enemies, and to pray for healing.

Stephen’s feast day shows us that Christmas Day is anything but the end of the holiday season. It’s the launching point for our whole life of faith. So let’s enter into his story and see what Stephen can teach us about living the Christmas spirit.

“Filled with the Spirit and Wisdom.” The Acts of the Apostles portrays Stephen as a persuasive preacher with an impressive grasp of the Hebrew Scriptures (Acts 7). It also shows a man who had the faith to perform miracles, the sensitivity to care for poor widows, and the talent to manage community finances. But most important, he was highly regarded as a man “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3). Even the Sanhedrin who put him on trial saw light shining through him, which the author of Acts interpreted as a sign of his holiness (6:15).

Unlike the twelve apostles, who were Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Jews, Stephen was likely a Jew of the Diaspora—meaning that he spoke Greek. This made him a natural choice to help out the newly baptized Jews who had come to Jerusalem from Greek-speaking regions outside of Palestine. In those earliest days of the Church, the Greek-speaking believers tended to lead separate lives from the Hebrew-speaking majority—mostly due to language and cultural barriers.

As a consequence, poor Greek-speaking widows were left out of the Jerusalem church’s distribution of alms. This lapse in charity was brought to the twelve apostles, who asked all the believers there to choose people to resolve the problem. Along with six other men, Stephen was appointed to help bridge the gap between Greek-speaking and Palestinian Christians.

Preserving Jesus’ Mission to the Poor. In addition to making provision for the widows’ needs, these seven men—deacons, we would call them today—were tasked with spreading Jesus’ message of salvation in Greek. This probably happened through works of mercy, shared meals, and conversations about Scripture, and Stephen was at the forefront of these person-to-person efforts.

Stephen’s example can help us evaluate how we are fulfilling Jesus’ call to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth”—and, in a special way, to bear his love to those who have less (Acts 1:8). From the account of the Church’s neglect of the widows in Acts 6, it’s clear that this has been a perpetual challenge for the Church. But it’s equally clear that the apostles understood that caring for the poor and showing special kindness to all of their Christian brothers and sisters was pleasing to God. It was so important that they needed more laypeople to devote effort to it.

Living the Christmas spirit year-round, then, might mean participating regularly in food drives and service opportunities that bring “good news” to the poor. Stephen shows that it is our business as standard-bearers of Christ to seek out and raise up vulnerable people so that we can make God’s kingdom more visible on earth.

“Father, Forgive Them.” After the Book of Acts gives us a small window into Stephen’s life, it pivots quickly to his remarkable death. Stephen’s stoning came about because of a courageous sermon he delivered, in which he announced the passing nature of the great Jewish Temple (Acts 7:48-49). You’ve probably heard stories about people who, in the moment just before their death, look as if they are seeing a vision. It seems that Stephen had a similar experience. He saw the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God the Father. Stephen’s vision emphasized that heaven and earth now come together in Jesus and no longer in the Temple. Of course, proclaiming this revelation did nothing to help Stephen’s cause. It only sealed his fate.

But it’s what Stephen said next that bishops and saints have focused on for centuries.

First, some background: before Jesus came, persecuted Israelites often called forth God’s vengeance on their attackers. “Rise up, Lord! . . . Break the arm of the wicked,” the psalmist prayed, and “let none of them survive” (Psalm 10:12, 15). But as he was being stoned, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). By imitating Jesus’ prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them,” Stephen showed us another way to adopt the spirit of Christ: praying for God’s mercy on people (Luke 23:34).

Why not make an Advent resolution to honor Jesus by praying regularly for someone who makes your life difficult? It’s one of the most ancient ways to grow in holiness. It can also change our hearts and help us to show unmerited kindness. Patience, forbearance, acts of service, and prayers for people who hurt us can literally win souls for Christ. Just think about the young St. Paul, who guarded the cloaks of the Jews who stoned Stephen that day. He probably never forgot Stephen’s prayer, and after his own conversion, he had many occasions to put it into practice himself. So do we! God’s light shines powerfully in the world whenever we show mercy to our enemies as St. Stephen did.

A Time for Healing. Here’s a third idea about how to carry the Christmas spirit of St. Stephen into your ordinary life. It begins with relics and ends with faith. Around the fourth century, the relics of St. Stephen were found and transported across the Roman empire. In a particular way thereafter, his role as the first saint and martyr gained a large following throughout Christendom. Hundreds of miracles began to occur as people prayed before the relics of St. Stephen.

St. Augustine was an eyewitness to several of them (City of God, Book XXII). He describes a Christian husband and wife who prayed at the Oratory of St. Stephen for the wife’s obstinately unbelieving father to come to faith in Christ as he lay dying. Overnight, he had a change of heart and called for a bishop to baptize him. He died repeating, “Christ, receive my spirit,” unaware that these were the last words of St. Stephen. There was also a blind man healed, a Spanish priest raised from the dead, and siblings with epilepsy healed dramatically in public just after they had prayed in front of Stephen’s relics. It is still inspiring to read these accounts.

When God chooses to heal people through the relics of holy men and women, he shows us that the promise of eternal life is trustworthy. In effect, he is saying, “I sent my Son to restore your body as well as your soul. Put your faith in me, and you will have everlasting life—like this faithful servant.” What’s more, healing miracles have occurred in the Church in every century.

Don’t be afraid to pray for specific healings in your family, your friends, or your parish. Even if you don’t have access to a relic, you can pray through the intercession of St. Stephen. When we pray for miracles, we are inviting God to show forth his presence and to assure us of how much more is to come. Prayers like these are for all seasons, but sacred times like Christmas can remind us to ask with renewed faith.

Bearing Christ’s Life. Christmas is not just the story of a child in a manger or a tree covered in lights. It’s about the new life of heaven taking root in us and spreading outward.

Like Stephen, we spread this new life by becoming more like Jesus: bringing good news to the poor, loving our enemies, and asking the Father to show his healing power. Living out the Christmas spirit means all of this and more. Let that sink in—and let it overflow to the world.

Kathryn Elliott is an editor for The Word Among Us. She is grateful for the information she found at the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame.

Prayer to St. Stephen

by Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB

Holy Martyr Stephen, help us by thy prayers to enter into the spirit of the mystery of the Word made flesh, now that we are celebrating the birth of our Savior . . .

We too wish to bear witness to him, and to tell how his birth is one of love and mercy. We wish to show by our lives that he has been born in our hearts.

Obtain for us that devotedness to the Divine Infant which gave thee such courage on the day of trial. We shall have such devotedness if, like thee, we are simple-hearted and fearless in our love of Jesus; for love is stronger than death. May we never forget that every Christian ought to be ready for martyrdom simply because he is a Christian. May the life of Christ, which has again begun within us, so grow.