Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day and the Martyrdom of Stephen

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Stoning of St. Stephen,  1625
(Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon)

In America December 26 is simply the day after Christmas, the day when most of us must go back to work after a day or two—if our employers see fit to make Christmas Eve a holiday—off from the daily grind of business. Those who don't have to return to work can at least take advantage of the "after Christmas" sales merchants dangle like carrots in front of consumers to help their bottom lines. For people in the UK and the British Commonwealth, December 26 is Boxing Day, a national holiday in Britain since Queen Victoria declared it so in the mid-19th century.

Today, Boxing Day has deteriorated to the point where it is simply a day to eat, drink copious amounts of alcohol, watch sporting events, and shop (in this last capacity it has become the English equivalent of America's execrable Black Friday). Though its origins are obscure, Boxing Day was originally designed to show gratitude to people of the lower classes who provided service throughout the year, and who may indeed have had to work while their "superiors" enjoyed the giving and receiving of gifts on Christmas day. These gifts of money and/or leftover food were presented in boxes; hence the name "Boxing Day," which thus, much to my chagrin years ago when I found out as a youngster, had nothing to do with pugilistics.

This suggests a religious origin of the holiday, one which may be gathered from John Mason Neale's 1853 carol, "Good King Wenceslas" (i.e., St. Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia [died 935 CE]), who braves the snow and cold to give alms to the poor on the second day of Christmas, also known as "The Feast of Stephen." Indeed, December 26 is St. Stephen's Day in the Western Church (it is celebrated on the 27th by the Eastern Church), celebrating the life of Stephen, who, according to Acts 7, was stoned by the Jewish authorities, thus becoming the first Christian martyr.

Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, was under no illusion that following Jesus would be a bed of roses. Indeed, Jesus himself came to "serve" and "suffer" (Luke 22:15, 27). And so the principle, "like master, like follower," follows suit inexorably. Only a few years after Stephen's demise, James the son of Zebedee fell to the sword of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2). And Luke's hero, Paul, would have to learn "how much he must suffer" for the sake of Jesus' name (Acts 9:16).

But suffering for Jesus' name, horrific as it may be, will be met with ultimate vindication, just like the Lord himself (Luke 9:22). One of the most striking elements of the Stephen narrative in Acts 7 is the penultimate saying ascribed to the martyr in the story: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56). Elsewhere the risen Jesus is always portrayed as sitting at God's right hand, sharing in his eschatological rule in fulfillment of the Davidic role found in Psalm 110:1 (cf. Acts 2:34!). The anomaly of Acts 7:55-56 has proved as mystifying as it is striking (C. K. Barrett, in his massive ICC commentary on Acts, lists eleven [!] different interpretations). Certainty is by no means appropriate, but two factors may be at play here. First, the standing of the Son of Man might indeed indicate that God's right hand man, the Lord himself in whose steps the martyr was following, is welcoming Stephen personally into God's presence. Second, as Barrett himself suggests, the Son of Man perhaps is standing in ready anticipation of coming back to earth to vindicate his people and consummate the promised kingdom.

Whatever the intended implications, we as Christians must always count the cost of following Jesus, the Son of Man whose vindication and enthronement as Lord only came after he had suffered and died as the representative of the "saints of the Most High" (Dan 7:25, 27). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." This is always true of the necessity of dying to self, but—as much as privileged Western Christians might like to avoid it—also may indeed be the literal lot of Christ's people. May we who follow the Son of Man have the courage to respond, if need be, in the manner of Stephen. I leave you with the Collect for Saint Stephen's Day found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
Grant, O Lord, that, in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.


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