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Our Rich Liturgical Heritage:

Christmas grace seen
in Stephen

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The Rt Revd Dr Peter Brain

Recently I’ve met a couple of people who have told me that having a birth day close to Christmas is not the best idea! Spare a thought for St Stephen’s Day which is marked down for 26 December. However, this amazingly graciously bold and brave first recorded Christian martyr is worthy of our remembrance.

The collect runs:

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 murders 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. (BCP).

There are a number of benefits of praying this collect so close to Christmas, especially as we live in a society obsessed with comfort, frivolity and indulgence. C S Lewis’s affirmation that ‘the central miracle asserted by Christians is the incarnation, they say that God became human’ is so easily swept aside by our traditional celebrations that tend to focus on family, feasting and frivolity. These short-term emphases, so pleasant for many, tarnishing the long-term pleasures of awe, wonder and grace. Pleasures that have compelling power to comfort in the tough realities of life are forfeited because we settle for triviality above truth and style over substance. Stephen’s example causes us to ask: ‘have we lost the substance of the Christmas event though our gutlessness in speaking up for Christ?’

Stephen was not gutless. Nor was he devoid of grace. His Sanhedrin sermon that led to his martyrdom demonstrated his great love for his fellows. Not content with historical reminders of Israel’s history, he likened their forebears repeated refusal to honour God’s patient kindness to their rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ. His sermon did not die the death of a thousand qualifications as he linked their stiff-necked rejection and uncircumcised hearts, to the death of Jesus. He stood up for Jesus in Jerusalem because he longed to see his fellows find the joy of Christ. As he was being stoned, Jesus stood up to welcome Him into His Father’s presence.

The coming of Jesus has always run contrary to human thinking. Plato mistakenly said that ‘never can man and God meet’ and in our own day sectarian groups and other religions, by denying Jesus’s divinity make the same grave error. Without a fully divine Saviour there can be no effectual atonement for our sins, nor awe and wonder at the heart of Christmas. If Christ were not God the Son dwelling amongst us as Lord and Saviour there is nothing worth dying for.

Christmas gives us opportunities to speak of Jesus. The simple invitation to attend church with us, will hardly lead to martyrdom, but it will be a witness to his unique grace, and may prove to be the needed nudge our friend had been waiting for. After the Christmas meal when Uncle Jack sentimentally opines: ‘all religions are the same’, or cousin Jill becomes antsy about the Christian at work who told her that ‘Jesus is the only way to God’, or the pseudo philosopher of the family flourishes his ignorance: ‘all Christians are hypocrites and Christianity is just a crutch made up to support the weak hearted etc…’, remember Stephen. Grasp the God-given opportunity to explain that their comments are rendered meaningless by the uniqueness of God the Son entering into our world as one of us, to rescue us from our ignorance. Friendship with the living God is possible through repentance and faith. As we do we find the Lord Jesus strengthening us. After all, a word of substance and truth will have been spoken. By God’s mercy through our loving testimony the Holy Spirit may well draw a listener to recognise that Jesus’s humble coming invests life with real meaning, hope and purpose.

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