The Feast of St Stephen - Reflection

'Stephenfell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’
When he had said this, he fell asleep.' Acts 7:60

The morning after the night before. We’ve all been there when reality bites. When we're shocked out of our daydream and have to face the real world again. Perhaps, it’s returning the presents, the ones which weren't received with quite the joy expected, the ones where the salesman promised the earth, and yet the goods didn't quite live up to it. Perhaps, it’s when you turned off the Christmas movie, and had to face Christmas with the grumpy relatives; or face Christmas all by yourself. There is something terrible about hopes dashed. There is something depressing when reality bites. This morning the Church is not aiming to bring you down, to throw cold water onto your otherwise happy Christmas. So what is the Church doing by putting this Feast right here? It’s not just today with the death of Stephen, tomorrow we remember the Apostle John who was exiled; Tuesday we remember the deaths of the Innocents, killed as Herod sought to murder the infant Jesus. Wednesday we remember Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was martyred in his own cathedral. The Feast of Christmas is immediately followed by some pretty stark days. What’s going on? Briefly, I want to put two words before us: comfort and challenge. 

First, these feasts, I think bizarrely, are there to give us comfort. Christmas is often sold as a magical, fairytale time of year, a time when all our wishes are meant to come true. Think of the horror in the papers and the news programmes when Covid threatened Christmas; by which of course the media meant the big get-togethers, the huge presents, and the delicious dinners. When we wrap Christmas up as a fairytale it doesn't take much for the bubble to burst. You see when you're sold a fairytale, it may be lovely for a moment, but fairly quickly reality bites and you swear off fairy tales completely. There is a real danger, that the Church—with it’s carol services, and Nativity plays—is seen to give us a fairytale which will disappear as soon as we go back to work. In fact, Christmas—the real Christmas—is about the hard reality of life. Mary & Joseph didn't ‘drive home for Christmas,’ they struggled the seventy or so miles on sore feet to a place where no one knew them. The Holy Family didn't wake up on Christmas morning, and rush down to the tree, and gape at all the presents; they woke up cold, lying on the ground, surrounded by stinking hay, and other stinking things! The first Christmas was difficult, and not a fairytale at all. And the reason for Christmas wasn’t a fairytale either. God came to earth, not because it was magical, but because it was broken! God came to an earth where people were struggling, families were fighting, people were alone, and kings sent out soldiers to do the unthinkable. Christmas, the real Christmas was no fairy tale at all. Christ coming to earth was about giving real people in a difficult world, hope! Hope that God was and is with them. And so we have these feast days, and we have the Feast of St Stephen. Stephen was an ordinary bloke, who came to realise that Jesus was who He said He was.Stephen—no doubt a peasant living on the poverty line, someone with very little, if any education—found in this difficult world, a real and lasting hope, a hope that would see him through the trials and difficulties of life; an—it turned out—would see him through even His own death. When we zoom in on the final scene of his life (in Acts 7:55-60) we might expect to find a man pleading for his life, a man broken and crying, a man whose hope had gone out. If Christmas was a fairytale—just a nice story to tell the kids—then that is exactly what we should find, for fairytales don’t survive contact with reality, and certainly not the reality of a baying mob out for your blood. However, Christmas isn't a fairytale, it’s real hope for the real world. That’s exactly what Stephen has found: a hope so real that nothing will make him give it up. Christmas gives us comfort, for Christmas gives us something that will survive the morning after the night before, for Christmas gives us Christ. Christ who didn’t stay safe in a manger, but went out into the real world, lived the real life we live, and then died a real, and horrific death, to deal with the darkest parts of this world. First, then, this feast  gives us comfort.

Second, the Feast of St Stephen, gives us a challenge. How easy is it to enjoy the Nativity and the carols, and then forget about the truth of Christmas the very next day? The Feast of St Stephen won't let us get away with that. The Feast answers the question—perhaps we didn’t know we were meant to ask—what are we to do about this baby? This baby that we have sunf about, this baby whose birth we have acted out, this baby who we have declared the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. What are we to do with this baby? The answer which St Stephen, and St John, and St Thomas Becket give us is: we are to go and tell the world. Go and tell the world, the real world, the world where there is COVID, the world where there is poverty, the world where there is family breakdown, and where governments lock up Christians; go tell the real world, about the real God who was born, and who lived and died, so that we might have hope. That is what St Stephen was doing, and in a real sense that is all he was doing; sharing hope in a world where too often darkness is predicted to win. For sharing that hope, the forces of darkness threaten to kill him, and yet Stephen went anyway. Stephen was just an ordinary person—just like you and me—and so this Feast challenges us to go and do what he did. We might not be killed—though some Christians are—but if we take this hope to the real world, then it will be uncomfortable and difficult for each of us. So I am not telling you a fairytale, or trying to sell you something which won't live up to the promise. Following the baby placed in a manger could get you killed, and it will certainly make you uncomfortable if you follow Him as you should; for it means speaking out in a world that often doesn't like what you have to say. A dark world tries to get rid of the light. And in a dark world, light, even the smallest light can be seen for many miles around. Christians are called to follow the baby of Bethlehem, and to be lights in the world, by speaking, and sharing, and telling the tale—the true tale—of the God who came to earth, so that those on earth might get to heaven. What are we to do with the baby? We are to go and tell the world! That is the challenge this Feast of St Stephen presents.

So, this morning on the Feast of Stephen, whether Christmas lived up to your expectations or not, do not lose hope for the true heart of Christmas lives on. He gives us comfort to face the real world with all it’s difficulties; and He challenges us—along with those who have followed Him before, those like Stephen & John and Thomas Becket—to take the message of hope and to share it with His world. So, go in peace to love and serve the Lord. In the name of Christ. Amen.