Symbols of St. Stephen Day
How many times have you celebrated the Feast of St. Stephen, First Martyr? The only time I know I did was 2004. What should we get out of this remembrance of a gruesome, brutal stoning? You can tell a lot about a holiday, a holy day by the symbols associated with it.
"Good King Wenceslas" is a symbol associated with St. Stephen. It's the one carol that mentions today. The first line is "Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen." Wenceslas lived from about 907 to 929. He was Bohemian prince not a king. A Holy Roman Emperor made him a king posthumously. He really was a Christian, but the carol isn't based on a real event. He didn't brave the elements to help a poor man gathering wood. He and his grandmother were killed by his brother's supporters. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints concludes, "Though they died only in some remote degree on account of religion, they young prince and his grandmother were acclaimed as martyrs." (339-340).
But all this doesn't make it an unfit symbol for St. Stephen Day. The tune does. A 19th century hymn writer set a 13th century Easter carol to the words of King Wenceslas. The "Flower Carol" is more distinctively Christian than "Good King Wenceslas," and because it's for Easter it's bubbly and joyous. The tune doesn't fit the somber, cold, scene of the words of "Good King Wenceslas," and it certainly doesn't fit the stoning of an innocent man by church leaders.
Who are we to talk though? Does the stoning of Stephen go with "Joy to the World," "Now Sing We Now Rejoice," or "Of the Father's Love Begotten?" Although the church had no idea when the stoning took place, she marked this event the day after Christmas. And as if this wasn't enough gloom and doom, she followed it by St. John, the apostle exiled for the faith, on the 27th and the slaughter of the Bethlehem babies on the 28th. 3 sobering feasts in a row. Why? After the church became legal in the Roman Empire, it was politically and economically correct to join her. The church didn't want the persecution and hardships she had been through forgotten. So as one scholar puts it, "Relieved of persecution, but still grieving over the death of thousands who had given their lives for their faith, the Western church of the fourth and fifth centuries established three festivals of martyrs" (Reed, Lutheran Liturgy, 473).
A carol that is offbeat for what it celebrates is in tune with the tone the Church historically wished to strike the day after Christmas. That somber note resonates today. The frivolity and merriment of the world's Christmas doesn't have enough substance to last. So as the somber scene of the Wenceslas carol offsets the "Flower Carol" tune, celebrating Stephen's stoning offsets decking the halls and ringing silver bells by staining the White Christmas snow with blood. This contrast, as you will see, puts my Christmas spirit, or lack thereof, into proper perspective.
First another symbol for today: two turtle doves. The Lutheran Church historically is unique in recognizing December 26 as Second Christmas Day as well as St. Stephen Day (Ibid. 473). As you know from the carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas,' two turtle doves is the gift for the second day of Christmas. You've probably also been told that each gift was code language for persecuted Christians to confess their faith. Now we're told that's not so (www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/12days.asp). What the internet gave, it has taken away. The two doves supposedly stood for the Old and New Testaments. Now it doesn't appear that was so, but even a faux symbolism can be a reminder of St. Stephen.
Stephen was stoned for daring to say the New Testament fulfilled the Old Testament, that Jesus was the New Testament Prophet that Moses, the Old Testament prophet, predicted would supersede him. The charges brought against Stephen show this. They're found at the end of Acts 6. "This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us."
Stephen dared to say that Jesus completely fulfilled God's Laws, so that they need not hang over anyone's head. You didn't have to go around perpetually bothered by what you didn't do, you need to do, you had better do. In Jesus all of that was completed, done, fulfilled in the eyes of God. And Stephen dared to preach that all the divine punishment that even the worst criminal, even a Gentile, deserved was suffered in full by Jesus on the cross. God's wrath was appeased by the blood of Jesus; God's anger was satisfied. In the nail pierced hands of Jesus, you are not in the hands of a wrathful God but in the hands of a forgiving, loving Father.
The final outrage that Stephen preached was that Jesus rose from the dead to show that He was the true everlasting Temple of God. The temple made by human hands was no longer the dwelling place of God. The place that God met man was in the Flesh and Blood of Jesus. You were to be baptized into Him. You were to be forgiven in His name. And rather than eat the bodies of animals and not drink their blood for righteousness, you were now to eat Jesus' Body and drink His Blood.
You recognize all this to be the Gospel of your salvation. You hear this as balm for your guilty conscience, as power to break the chains of sin, as your deliverance from Death and the Devil. Yet see what this Good News did to Old Testament church leaders. These dignified churchmen "were furious and gnashed their teeth at Stephen." They behaved like rabid dogs. And like rebellious children, they covered their ears and with one passionate rage they, not servants, not police, but they, the distinguished church leaders, dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him.
The 2 turtle doves of the Second Day of Christmas symbolize that Stephen dared preach the Old Testament was fulfilled by the New and that Jesus grace and truth were superior to Moses and his laws. And like "Good King Wenceslas the two doves are a backhanded symbol. Doves symbolize peace. There is no peace on St. Stephen Day except for Stephen whose spirit was received by the risen Lord Jesus. So too in our day the true Christmas Spirit that gives us peace provokes rage from others.
You've heard how the American Atheists put up billboards in cities that read, "Christmas You know it's a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason." You know in the past how a rabbi forced the Seattle airport to remove a Christmas tree. You know how manger scenes have been driven from the public square, and how "Merry Christmas" is regarded as a slap in the face of non-Christians. But perhaps the worst indignity of all is how our holy day, our entire Advent Season has been immersed in and contaminated by a 19th century yearend festival of good will. And make no mistakes about it. As it was church leaders who stoned Stephen, so it was Christians who led the way in secularizing or Santa-izing Christmas.
Oops, I offended you. Perfect. This leads to my final symbol for St. Stephen Day. Really two of them. December 26 is known in Great Britain as Boxing Day. As with many traditions, its origins are murky, but today it's about giving gifts to those who serve: mailmen, doormen, tradesmen. A member of mine, born and raised in England, told me it was the day masters traded places with servants. This switching of places is what I wish to focus on. One of the church's actual symbols for St. Stephen is on your insert. It depicts a garment with 3 stones around it. The coat reminds us that the unconverted Paul held the coats of those doing the murdering of the gospel.
That coat invites me to remember on St. Stephen Day my role in stoning the gospel this Christmas. Sure I've done that. The stones in my hand were unbelief, humbug, and despair. The law of supply and demand which makes long lines for certain things at Christmas completely eclipsed the Gospel that Jesus Christ was born under the Law that I can't bear up under or ever fulfill. Humbug I said; I'll be glad when this miserable holiday is over completely forgetting the holy night when the angel proclaimed the holy day a Savior was born for me.
Yes, I've used the sins of men to taint the Gospel of God. Because men are no angels at Christmas, I've forgotten that God sent a whole company of angels to announce to a handful of shepherds a unilateral peace treaty between God and mankind. Yes, the ongoing political battles at home and the real battles going on in the Middle East spoke louder and more certainly in my ears than all those angels. God told me that in Jesus for His sake He gives me peace on earth and I've preferred instead to despair and believe all I have is conflict on this earth.
Yes, I rushed on the preaching of the good news; I covered my ears so as not to hear the Gospel, and I picked up stones to silence it. I was like the lady who called the church one January to complain that we were still playing Christmas music on the bells. I did that because Epiphany is an extension of the Christmas season. There was anguish in her voice. "Please stop the Christmas music; I can't take it." I understand. There is no neutral response to the Gospel. To those for whom Christmas is not a message of real good news, actual forgiveness, tangible hope and eternal peace in Jesus, it's just irritating. You can only take so much fake cheer a year.
This year it was me who just wanted the music to stop; it was me picking up the rocks. Oh I was in the background like Paul. I didn't take out anti-Christmas billboards; I just humbugged the Christmas message. But what do I hear this day after Christmas? I hear the dying Stephen still preaching the Gospel. "Lord don't hold this sin against them." Even though I Scrooged, Grinched, and despaired away Christmas, today I come to church and hear Christmas still being proclaimed to me Christ has come to redeem, restore, and forgive me. Unlike Scrooge it might have taken me till the day after Christmas to wake up, but it's not too late to celebrate and receive Christmas by opening my ears and mouth to the One who has come and saved me.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Stephen, First Martyr (20101226); Acts 6: 8-10; 7: 54-60