Today is of course the Feast of Stephen, our annual recollection of “the day after,” focused upon the first martyr of the Church. It is the second day in the Octave of Christmas, or in the twelve to the Epiphany. Our comprehension of the Nativity of Our Lord requires sight from many angles.
It can never be a full comprehension, for us, but it can at least be rounded. Birth implies death, and Christmas leads directly to Easter. In a narrow worldly sense, the birth of Jesus will lead to the death of Stephen. It is not, in that narrow sense, “all good.”
An extraordinary note by Monsignor Charles Pope, on “the meaning of Christmas,” appeared in the electronic backwaters of the National Catholic Register last Sunday. In the face of all seasonal sentimentality, Fr Pope reminds us of the account of the Nativity, in Revelations chapter 12, and not on any Hallmark card.
We all know the first verse: the splendid image of Our Lady, “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”
By the paths of modernity, the subsequent verses have been all but erased from mind. For instance: “The dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered; that when she should be delivered he might devour her son.”
In general, we take our apocalypses glibber at the present day. As Genesis at the beginning, so in this book at the end of our Bible, we are reading what is elevated above all “natural” human experience. It is an account of events in our world, from an extra-worldly perspective. The imagery is thus not confined to what is “worldly,” or as it were, plausible.
To readers in former generations, before the substitution of science fiction for Holy Writ, this was intrinsic to the plot. There is War in Heaven. And we, in our lives, are on the front line of that War. It is a line that runs through every human heart.
We most certainly have free will; but we are in a place where we cannot be neutrals. To put this plainly: Satan has made his stand, and we are with him or against him.
The lukewarm – those who consider themselves “innocent bystanders” – will be spat out even by Satan. Give him his due, as did Dante, and more notoriously, Milton. For the spineless and evasive he has only contempt. Yet from God, a Love that they will never requite. In an earthly sense, the neutral are only incidental roadkill; statistics.
Our celebration of Christmas at the present day, so far as it can even be called a celebration, is bloodless like this. The circumstances even of the crèche are lost on us, from our bleating sentimentality. It was cold there.
In Msgr. Pope’s analogy, it is the D-Day landing. This scene of utter sweetness also communicates the utterly vulnerable. Angelic forces, and they alone, stand in protection of this little group, which must excite demonic ravening.
On the soil of this Earth, at Bethlehem, as it were and was, the Christ has landed. As, in the analogy, a few feet had once landed, on the soil of France: and soon word was spreading through all the camps of Europe under Nazi guard.
This analogy has some meaning to me, through the first-hand accounts of my parents’ generation. Blazing headlines, perhaps, in England and America, but in Europe the news passed in whispers: “They have landed in France.” The meaning of this phrase being, “Our liberation is at hand!”
But that was just one earthly war, which many preceded, and many are to come; just one confused battle in the course of a history that can never be confined to time or place.
Compare this larger war: this War in Heaven; and the consequences of it, which infinitely exceed the outcome of any earthly battle. We are not up against some Hitler or Stalin, who will die in due course, but an immortal fiend and unquenchable Dragon; against “that old serpent” Satan, “who seduceth the whole world.”
Victory by arms is not available to us; nor by any other means our enterprise can supply. There is no route forward along which he won’t be met: for the truth, in this world, is that we are surrounded. Nor can we “negotiate” with a force that has us surrounded, and was committed from the beginning to our annihilation.
With God, and alone with God, all things are possible. Without God, we are statistics: roadkill, merely.
It was on Patmos, we gather, that the Apostle John, the one survivor of apostolic martyrdom grown to an old age, was shown the vision of Christmas from this quite otherworldly “point of view.” And note that no Santa Claus is vouchsafed to him. Fixate, for one moment, on the image of that dragon, poised to devour the Holy Child. This is not jingle bells.
And the stones, landing upon the flesh of Saint Stephen, are not chocolates. They are the direct consequence, on this Earth, of the birth of Our Savior.
While of course, Christmas is a glorious celebration, the Glory cannot be fully appreciated when it is reduced to turkey and toys.
Perhaps only those who have looked into the jaws of death, can begin to appreciate what deliverance is about; or how Death itself might be personified. Though perhaps it is possible, by divine grace, to form a sound imagination of the thing. We fear death, yet that is only the doorway.
Merry, indeed, is the notion that our deliverance is at hand; that the defeat of Death itself could ever have been accomplished. Happy, and blessed, must be that occasion, in no small way. Triumphant, necessarily, is that call: even in the cry of Stephen, whose Victory is at hand.
“And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying: Now is come salvation.”