Merry Christmas! Today is the second day of this season of twelve days of feasting and celebration. Many Americans will celebrate the day at the shopping malls, and many others will return to work after a holiday, probably more tired than they were on the last day they worked. And many other Americans didn’t get a holiday yesterday, having to work as police officers, nurses, or cashiers at a convenience store. The package I’d sent to my sister didn’t arrive before the 25th, so they will get to celebrate Christmas some more today or tomorrow. My Christmas cards haven’t gone into the mail yet, but most of them will reach their destinations within the twelve days. So today begins quietly for me, as I sit at my computer to work, after gifts have been opened and stockings emptied and feasts consumed.
Today is the Feast of St. Stephen, deacon in the early church, and the church’s first martyr. We get a bunch of martyrs over the next few days, Stephen and the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem and Thomas á Becket. It’s a bit sobering and can put a damper over our joy in the season. But these celebrations — and they are celebrations! — hold important reminders for us.
Maplestar wrote beautifully about a crucial theme in the celebration of Christmas, one that is reflected in the lectionary readings for Christmas day, and one that helps us understand why Christmas was placed where it is on the calendar — over top of a pagan celebration, and at a time of year when we can be almost positive that the Nativity could not have happened. The winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Until December 21, the days continue to grow shorter, until it feels that the darkness may well overcome us. And then, just as the days are beginning to grow longer, we boldly dare to kindle a flame in that darkness, to light the tall, white Christ candle in the middle of the Advent wreath, and we hear the beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah,
- The people who walked in darkness
- have seen a great light;
- those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
- on them light has shined.
Around the time of the winter solstice, we do walk in darkness, and we pray for light to shine on us. We bedeck our houses with lights, and we decorate trees with lights — evergreen trees to remind us that life has not gone out of the world in this dark time, but will return again just as the light returns. We gather together, refusing to admit that there is some part of each of us that is afraid of the dark. After all, we’re big brave grown-ups, and we have the power of electricity!
Stephen lived in dark times, too. He was trying to bring the light of Jesus, the Christ, into the minds and hearts of the Jewish people of his time. He preached and taught about Jesus, until the temple authorities tired of his challenges, which they saw as not only blasphemy but a threat to their way of life. The story of Stephen’s stoning in the book of Acts is brutal and beautiful, at the same time. In the face of darkness, anger, and rage, Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. In the face of darkness, Stephen saw a great light. On this man, God’s light shined.
The martyrs whose lives are celebrated between the Feast of the Nativity and the Feast of the Holy Name (formerly known as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, in times before people thought it was unfit to think about the penis of the savior, or perhaps about the pain inflicted on an infant), these martyrs give us reminders that in the midst of troubling times, in the middle of all the darkness and anger and rage and hate in the world, God’s light is always shining on us.
Of course, that light is easier to see at some times than at others. It can be fairly easy to see God’s light in a placid, serene creche scene enacted by the children and youth at church. Of course, it’s a bit fuzzier when you think about what that scene must really have been like — a crowded little stable, a teenaged peasant now sweaty and sore and exhausted after delivering her first child, a host animals all stinky and noisy, filthy straw, insufficient water, and no place to lay down the squalling infant except a feeding trough. And then a troop of poor, disreputable shepherds tries to crowd inside, all singing loudly like a bunch of drunkards and pushing amongst themselves to see the baby?
But God’s light is in this very real scene, shining through the mess and the filth and the stink. That’s what God’s light does. The light is not about sweet sentimentality, not about the placid and safe nativity scenes we are so used to seeing. Rather, the light of God is a direct challenge in the face of darkness. God is far from safe. God is always challenging us, threatening our sense of security and safety. God is constantly drawing us out of our comfort and into a place of vulnerability and risk. Because, you see, God knows that God’s light becomes invisible to us when we surround ourselves with electric lamps and rest in comfort and safety; God’s light blazes forth only in the darkness, only in the places of challenge or frustration or risk.
Stephen knew this. Stephen stood against the darkness of his day, and he saw the glory of God as he looked into the eyes of the men who were ready to kill him. Stephen knew that he was risking everything by continuing to preach and teach at the temple. He did not remain placid and calm and serene, but he challenged the authorities. And Stephen was richly rewarded, as light perpetual shines upon him.
As we walk in darkness, my friends, may we see that great light. In this land of great darkness, may God’s light shine upon us. May we have the grace to see that light, to see the glory of God as Stephen did. And may we have the strength and courage to carry that light to others, to challenge the darkness, to come out from our places of comfort and safety, and to open our hearts to love and serve the light of Christ in all of our brothers and sisters.