Today, the day after Christmas, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Stephen, the “Protomartyr,” meaning both someone first in time and who serves as an example to us all. One might wonder, why? We are in the “Octave of Christmas,” after all. What does Stephen’s martyrdom have to do with the birth of Christ?
The Office of Readings today contains a sermon by the 6thcentury bishop, St. Fulgentius, which explains why. Fulgentius is one of those little-known saints whom one is simply astonished to learn about (but all the saints are like that). Can such a man have lived?
He was taught Greek first, before Latin, so that he’d be able to pronounce it flawlessly. As a boy, he committed the entire Iliad and Odyssey to memory. He turned to monastic life after encountering St. Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 36. He spent his adult life looking (always prudently) for a stricter and more austere rule of life, while suffering persecution and exile by Arians.
He was so revered for learning and holiness that once when he showed up at a monastery, the Abbot resigned and said Fulgentius deserved to be Abbot instead. Or when contrary winds once kept his boat in harbor as he was being sent to exile, thousands learned about it and gathered to hear him preach and receive Communion from him.
The sermon begins, “Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier,” which is interesting – not least as showing that the two feasts were juxtaposed as early as the 6thcentury.
Fulgentius draws three connections between two feasts. The first is the connection between birth and death. For a Christian, death is birth unto eternal life, as reflected in the very phrase Dies natalis, “birthday,” to mark the date of passing of one of the faithful.
We want to imitate Christ. As Nicodemus pointed out, we cannot crawl back into the womb to be born again, imitating him on Christmas. But we can imitate him in dying. “Yesterday,” the saint says, “our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.”
So, Christian, the day after Christmas, reflect on your death, and ask for the grace to die in the same joy that you share on Christmas morning, in imitation of the Infant Christ.
The second connection he draws, already evident in the two quotations, is between Christ, born King – and Stephen, his soldier. This is highly interesting. We speak of the “Kingdom of God,” in which God reigns as King.
But “King” is a correlative term. How do we refer to those “under” the King? Are they “citizens” in this Kingdom, or its “servants”? Fulgentius thinks of them as soldiers, presumably on the grounds that the subjects of a Kingdom asked to show the most loyalty, to the point of giving up their lives, are precisely its soldiers.
The Good News of the arrival of the Kingdom of God is therefore also the news that we have been enlisted as soldiers. Fulgentius’ life showed a real grasp of the demands of spiritual combat. He rightly holds up martyrdom as the fullest and clearest expression of a Christian’s loyalty to his King.
It is said that the frankincense brought by the Wise Men prefigures the Lord’s Passion and Death, but by the same token it prefigures the martyrdom – “red,” “white,” or unnoticed – to which we are called.
But in his sermon, Fulgentius devotes most of his attention to a third connection: of charity. The charity that brought the Lord to earth is the same charity that brought Stephen to heaven:
He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvelous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches. And so, the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven.
This thought provides an intriguing interpretation of gift-giving at Christmas. It is not to “celebrate” the day, or even to give gifts to others, in order to give them to infant Christ. Instead, the explosion of gifts on Christmas day stands as effect to cause. We are meant to see divine love in the effects – while at the same time through gift-giving we are meant to lead one another heavenward.
Stephen’s martyrdom did this in an exemplary way. Love is a unitive force, strikingly, between him and Saul: “Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name [stephanos= “crown” in Greek].
His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. . . .Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. . . .Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. . . .This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy.
Which leads to the saint’s closing prayer: “My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.”
*Image: The Stoning of St. Stephen by Pietro da Cortona, c. 1660 [The Hermitage, St. Petersburg]