It’s always seemed strange to me that the day after Christmas the Church celebrates its first martyr, St. Stephen, a man stoned to death by an angry mob for faith in Jesus. Why not dwell longer on the child in the manger, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and angels?
But perhaps this feast of St. Stephen is a good “reality check” for our faith. We Christians may be tempted to a following of Christ that focuses only on a personal devotion to Jesus. This temptation does not respect Jesus’ call to live our faith openly in our families, communities and world: we are called to be light to our world! Yes, our faith calls us to stand up and witness to truths of the Gospel; at times we may even be called to confront publicly evil in our midst.
Jesus never preached escape from the world. Jesus himself always witnessed fearlessly to the truth given him from the Father. He ultimately laid down his life in witness to this truth. Indeed, Stephen in his fearlessness is imitating Jesus.
But unsettling as today’s readings are, they also give us comfort. We are never asked to stand up for truth and witness to the Gospel unaided by God’s presence and strength. The Acts of the Apostles notes that Stephen was first “filled with the Holy Spirit” and then spoke. The Gospel of Matthew echoes this reminding us that even when persecuted for our faith we need not worry what to say because the Spirit will be there to help, “For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
Today’s Gospel calls us to overcome the cultural conditioning inhibiting us from witnessing to our faith. The Christmas holidays -- when the religious dimension is often ignored -- provide excellent opportunities for this witness with family members, friends and colleagues. We will arrange our family schedules to include attending mass together on Sundays and the holy days of Christmas and New Years. We will begin all family meals with a spoken grace, adding special notes of thanksgiving for the birth of Jesus. We may volunteer for church and community service projects aimed at helping the needy.
As our nation moves toward a secularization of the feast of Christmas, we want to be even more vocal in proclaiming that Christmas is about Christ! In doing this it will not be us who is speaking but “the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
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