Saint Stephens 2021
Boxing day – the day after Christmas, the day people recover, sit on the couch and sip something that goes plop, plop, fizz, fizz.
Boxing day – the day that, just in case a person hasn't had enough of the stores, and their credit cards aren’t quite topped up, they can go to the stores to buy what they didn’t get for Christmas at ½ price.
Why is it called Boxing Day? Is boxing one of the skills you need to get the bargains from the bargain bins? Is it because you bring even more boxes home from the store?
It is actually called boxing day because it is supposed to be the day that you box up food and presents and take them to those in need!
We know it as Boxing Day, but it was known as St. Stephen’s feast day before that, and it still is St. Stephen’s day in the liturgical calendar.
In Praying the Breviary, I found Saint Fulgentius sermon concerning Saint Stephen so good that I decided to cut out part of my sermon so that you could hear what Saint Fulgentius has to say.
"Yesterday we were celebrating the birth in time of our Eternal King; today we celebrate the victory, through suffering, of one of His soldiers. Yesterday our King was pleased to come forth from His royal palace of the Virgin's womb, clothed in a robe of flesh, to visit the world; today His soldier, laying aside the tabernacle of the body, entereth in triumph into the heavenly palaces. The One, preserving unchanged that glory of the Godhead which He had before the world was, girded Himself with the form of a servant, and entered the arena of this world to fight sin; the other taketh off the garments of this corruptible body, and entereth into the heavenly mansions, where he will reign for ever. The One cometh down, veiled in flesh; the other goeth up, clothed in a robe of glory, red with blood.
The One cometh down amid the jubilation of angels; the other goeth up amid the stoning of the Jews. Yesterday the holy angels were singing, Glory to God in the highest; today there is joy among them, for they receive Stephen into their company. Yesterday the Lord came forth from the Virgin's womb; today His soldier is delivered from the prison of the body. Yesterday Christ was for our sakes wrapped in swaddling bands; today He girdeth Stephen with a robe of immortality. Yesterday the new-born Christ lay in a narrow manger; today Stephen entereth victorious into the boundless heavens. The Lord came down alone that He might raise many up; our King humbled Himself that He might set His soldiers in high places.
Why brethren, it behoveth us to consider with what arms Stephen was able, amid all the cruelty of the Jews, to remain more than conqueror, and worthily to attain to so blessed a triumph. Stephen, in that struggle which brought him to the crown whereof his name is a prophecy, had for armour the love of God and man, and by it he remained victorious on all hands. The love of God strengthened him against the cruelty of the Jews; and the love of his neighbour made him pray even for his murderers. Through love he rebuked the wandering, that they might be corrected; through love he prayed for them that stoned him, that they might not be punished. By the might of his love he overcame Saul his cruel persecutor; and earned for a comrade in heaven, the very man who had done him to death upon earth."
Stephen took a faithful stand for his Lord, and even as they got ready to drag him out to be stoned, God granted him a vision of his own glory and of Jesus enthroned beside him. Stephen’s “bad day” was a good day for the Church, because on that day God set Stephen before the rest of us as a witness—a lesson as to what it means to be Christmas people—people of God's grace and his love and his power. God showed himself to Stephen so that Stephen could show himself and his faith in Christ to the rest of us.
Stephen’s story does more than just encourage us to share the Good News and to stand firm in our faith. He reminds us what it means to witness the Gospel in our deeds. Stephen had that vision of the Lord Jesus before his eyes, and so even as these evil men started hurling stones at him, he responded with Christlike love. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, do you remember what he prayed? He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do.” To the last Jesus was concerned with the souls and with the eternal state of the people around him—even his enemies. He was an evangelist to the end, even when there were no more words to say to his persecutors and murderers, he was praying for them. And Stephen, with his eyes on Jesus, does the same. There was nothing left to say to these men and there was nothing left for him to do, and so he prayed for them: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
St Luke tells us that St. Paul was there that day. He was holding coats so that people could do a better job throwing rocks at Stephen. Of course, this is when he was known as Saul—before he met Jesus on the Damascus Road and had his life changed forever. The next verse, 8:1, tells us that Paul approved of Stephen’s execution. What we don’t know is what impact Stephen’s loving and gracious response had on Paul’s future conversion. But Luke certainly included this detail for a reason.
Stephen reminds us that we need to be living as Christmas people, not just on Christmas, but every day. But he also shows us very dramatically what it means to live in the life and grace of Christmas—especially in light of St. Luke’s note that Paul was there that day. We never know who is witnessing us and how those around us may, or may not, be impacted for the Gospel by what we say and what we do and by how we deal with the circumstances of life. Who would have thought on that day that Saul of Tarsus—Hebrew of Hebrews and member of the Sanhedrin, the man who hunted down Christians and brought them to trial before the Jewish authorities—who would have thought that Stephen’s witness of love and grace that day might change the whole course of Church history as Saul later became Paul, the apostle to the gentiles. And lastly, Stephen teaches us something about the extreme nature of grace and love and forgiveness. These men were more than just run-of-the-mill enemies. These weren’t just men who didn’t like him or were just angry with him. These were men who saw him as a threat to their existence and killed him. Stephen didn’t reciprocate their anger. He saw them as Jesus saw them: sinful men whom he loved and who would face eternal damnation without the Gospel of the death burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Stephen knew how that Christ sacrifice on the cross overcomes a multitude of sins and he knew it because he had experienced it himself. St. John reminds us that anyone who claims to love God, but hates his brother is a liar—that you can’t have experienced the redeeming love of God and still hold grudges and hate in your heart against those who have wronged you.
To hold a grudge, to resent the sins of others, to fail to show a forgiving spirit, is to be self-righteous—it’s to ignore what God had done for you! Stephen could look on these angry men with love, precisely because he had himself experienced the love of Christ and God’s forgiveness—and he knew that there was nothing these men could do to him that was as bad as even his own smallest offenses against God. God had forgiven him so much—and he realize that so well—that it was a “small” thing for him to forgive these men and to show them love.
St. Stephen shows us how the love of Christ really does work out in our lives—or at least how it should, if we truly claim to love God and to have experienced his grace and forgiveness.
So remember today: We are a Christmas people, living in the grace and love of God. But remember too that God calls us to be Christmas people every day. The joy of Christmas is something that should permeate every aspect of our lives that we might be witnesses, even to our enemies and even to those who would kill us, of the love and grace that God has shown us through his Son. And so we pray, “Grant, O Lord, through the intercessory prayers of St. Stephen, that in all our sufferings for the testimony of your truth we may look up steadfastly to heaven and see by faith the glory that is to be revealed and, filled with the Holy Spirit, may learn to love and pray for our persecutors as St. Stephen your first martyr prayed for his murderers to you, blessed Jesus, where you stand at the right hand of God to help all who suffer for you, our only mediator and advocate.”