|Stephen the Protomartyr and Archdeacon|
THE CHRISTMAS ANGELS have returned to heaven. The shepherds have gone back to their fields and flocks. And the first day after Christmas turns bloody with the Feast of the Protomartyr and Archdeacon, Stephen. This is because the feast of Stephen is older than the Feast of the Lord's Birth.
In the evolution of the Christian calendar, Easter of course was the first feast established and celebrated, and then by extension every Sunday as a little Easter. But the first saints days to be remembered were those of the martyrs. Christmas as a feast day would not come along for quite some time.
Yesterday the Master came to us as a man,
And today his servant departs from life.
Yesterday the King was born as a man,
And today his servant is stoned to death,
For the sake of Christ,
Holy Stephen became the first martyr.
Eastern Christian Kontakion
In the ancient icon seen here, the young deacon, chosen to wait on table for the benefit of widows, is seen wearing a white alb. He is swinging a little thurible, the incense burner the deacon uses at the liturgy while singing intercessions on behalf of the world. In his left hand the holy martyr holds the stones of his martyrdom.
It's very hard being a Christian in much of the world today. In some countries Christians have stones and curses hurled at them as they approach their church for Mass. This is a good day to remember to pray that Muslims and Christians would love each other and that all the violence would be expunged from religion.
The name Stephen means crowned-one. We're all crowned aren't we? Some people consider their children to be their crowning. But we are first of all crowned with life itself, and faith, and baptism into Christ-life, the friends we have - the people we meet who have loved us and helped us along the way to today. We're crowned with the opportunities life has afforded us and the promises of Christ to the fullness of life - which is an even eternal gift-promise.
Returning to the Nativity Icon with its different elements - here is the angel-choir of Christmas night filling the sky after the shepherds had been directed to Bethlehem.
And suddenly there was with the angel the multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: "Glory to God! Glory to God in the highest! And peace on the earth!"
Father Rahner says that angels are the entourage of Christ. They are present at the announcement of his conception, at the end of his forty day prayer in the desert, at his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death, at his Easter Rising. Eastern icons place a row of angels at his Baptism, holding towels with covered hands.
But these are serenading angels. Lovely! I imagine we get close to knowing what the song might have sounded like when we hear Handel's Messiah: the Christmas angel-story sung so memorably there. It is said that German Christmas carols put the Infant Jesus to sleep, while French carols wake him up. We should be sure to sing carols this week, even alone - to put Jesus to sleep, to wake him up - doesn't matter - only that they be sung with love.