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A ridiculous day to choose for a stoning

19 December 2007

Stephen Cottrell laments the untimely fate of his first-century namesake

Martyr’s palm at the ready: The Stoning of St Stephen by Pietro da Cortona (1660) HERITAGE MUSEUM

Martyr’s palm at the ready: The Stoning of St Stephen by Pietro da Cortona (1660) HERITAGE MUSEUM

 

I HAVE an early childhood memory of being told that St Stephen was the first martyr of the Church, and then bursting into tears. This is one of those stories that gets retold, and probably embellished, at family gatherings, especially at Christmas. But I do remember it; for I was shocked to discover that I shared my name with the first person to be killed for being a Christian.

I do not quite know why I was so dismayed. I suppose it seemed unfair. Furthermore, of all the ridiculous days in the year to choose, his witness to Christ was celebrated on Boxing Day. How typical of the Church to dampen Christmas spirit so completely — what an intrusion! Why would the compilers of the church calendar choose this day to remember such a cruel and vicious death?

 

In T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Archbishop Thomas Becket, preaching in Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas morning, 1170, faces the same question (Features, page 25). He begins: “Whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth . . . Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason?”

 

Yet this is the Christian mystery: at the same time as we rejoice in Christ’s coming among us in human flesh, we also remember how this flesh was broken. We cannot celebrate the birth of Christ with integrity unless we also see where this birth leads: not just in Christ’s own ministry — the manger at Bethlehem being the first step on the way that leads to the cross — but also in the lives of those who follow.

 

In Eliot’s play, Becket sees this: the dark clouds of opposition are gathering. Terrible choices are to be made. His sermon continues: “Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs.”

 

Here is the really hard part of Christmas: we are all called to martyrdom. To be a martyr means to be a witness. Mary submits to the will of God (Luke 1.38), and treasures in her heart all she experiences (Luke 2.19). The shepherds, who are the first to come to see Jesus, return “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2.20). The Wise Men are overwhelmed with joy (Matthew 2.10).

 

SO IT IS with everyone who stops by this stable: it is a place of astonishing joy, but also a place where paths converge, and new journeys begin. No one wants to shed his or her blood for the sake of this Christ; but no one is exempt from the Christian vocation to become the place where God dwells.

 

We pause at the manger and see the story of God etched into a human life. Then, if we stay a little longer, if we are truly still and allow the mystery of God’s presence among us to breathe its transforming grace into our own lives, we are invited to become the place where that story is told afresh. Like the Wise Men, we have the path of our life redirected — that is what being a witness means. Martyrdom is not first about shedding blood: it is about being faithful to truth.

 

We tell it as it is. We face the consequences. So this sort of Messiah — a God among us, born in this sort of manger, ambiguous and bright — leads to this sort of witness. We cannot be sentimental about this birth, and perhaps the real message of Christmas should be a health warning: don’t linger for long in this stable if you want an easy life. But linger we must.

 

STEPHEN was ordained to wait at tables one day, but was preaching before the Sanhedrin and getting himself killed the next (so much for a New Testament pattern of ministry . . .). This is where his witness leads. False charges are made against him, and, challenged by the council to account for himself, he makes the devastating and audacious Christian claim that God “does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7.48).

 

Jesus is the place where we will now behold God. (Stephen has been to Bethlehem.) For this tenacious witness, he is dragged out of the city and stoned to death. Silent and serene before his accusers, he prays for them as he dies.

 

Now all the connections are made. Stephen makes the prayer of Jesus his own: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7.60). The forgiveness that Jesus extends to those who nailed him to the cross is now evident in the living and dying of those who follow him.

 

A new pattern for humanity is established. The old madness of your eye for my eye, and your tooth for mine, is done away with. Stephen walks the same extra mile of love that we see in the Passion of Christ.

 

“A martyrdom is always the design of God,” says Becket, “for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.”

 

WHAT WILL we find at Bethlehem this year: how will our lives be redirected? More than anything else, what we need to find in the manger is Christ’s uncompromising message of peace. We need to hear again the song of the angels that this peace can be known on earth. We need to direct our hearts and minds towards a peace that the world can never understand, because it is founded on the hospitality of a God who in Christ is drawing the whole creation into one.

 

This is a peace that reconfigures difference. Opposites are turned into complementary facets of a multifaceted and still-being-revealed truth. Diversity is cherished. God reaches out to Jew and Gentile alike. This is the truth we must witness to.

 

Maybe even the squabbles of the Anglican Communion can be redirected as a glorious and scrupulously honest attempt to live with disagreement, and to keep on walking and talking lest anyone be unnecessarily excluded. Is there another gospel our world needs to hear at the moment: that it is possible to live together with profoundly held disagreement?

 

Today, the word “marty” too easily fills us with dread. It has become associated with those who might destroy us. Let it become again a word of hope, telling of those who will go on loving until the end, and whose faithfulness to the truth they find in Christ is boundless and full of joy.

 

Then there are all the other half-promises of peace that the world continues to peddle, symbolised most poignantly by the present-day walls around Bethlehem itself, and also by the billions our own country proposes to spend on more nuclear weapons. There is the new arms race that this stokes up, as others seek a place at the nuclear high table; the casual violence that is becoming a norm in the underbelly of so many industrialised cities, where astonishing wealth lives blithely side by side with appalling poverty; the mess that Iraq has become; the apathy that continues to betray the earth we inhabit, as we carry on plundering the sea, the land, and the very air we will soon no longer be able to breathe.

 

The God who comes to us in Christ, the one we find in the manger, breaks down these barriers of separation. “He is our peace,” says the letter to the Ephesians. “He has broken down the dividing wall . . . the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2.14).

 

CHRISTIAN PEACE is not just the silence after the guns have finished firing. Christian peace is true reconciliation, painfully embraced. Christ’s peace means facing up to differences, confronting injustice, and repenting of those attitudes and actions that divide and devour the world. It means witnessing to what we see in Christ, the God who is with us.

 

When this does happen — in Stephen,

 

in Thomas Becket, in the wonderful witness of so many Christian lives — Jesus is born again, the world is offered another way, and the invitation to be changed is offered afresh.

 

At the same time, however, there is also the dreadful possibility of martyrdom; for such a demonstration of tenacious loving will always strike fear in the hearts of those who have grown powerful by stirring up division. It is not the death of Stephen that is the first intimation of what following Christ may mean, but the terrible massacre of the innocents. What lengths some will travel to, to rid the world of love.

 

As Christians today, we are called to witness to peace in a time where fear and division seem to be winning the day. But they cannot prevail. Stephen sees the glory of God, and Jesus at God’s right hand, as he offers his life in the service of God. This glory can sustain us, even when it is experienced in the midst of suffering.

 

So I did cry when I first learned about Stephen. But now St Stephen’s Day is my favourite in the Christmas season — because it makes the connections. We mourn and we celebrate. The death of Christ and the death of his martyr, Stephen, is a sign of God’s victory. Christ’s birth and the awakening of vocation in the human heart is a sign of God’s involvement with the world.

 

Yet I also like this day because it is usually a quiet day in the Church — a day when most people are still in bed, nursing hangovers or sleeping in. It is possible to come to the manger, to bend the knee, to get underneath the lintel of the door, to see how silently the gift is given, and then, away from all the hurried merriment of the day before, to receive it.

 

The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is Bishop of Reading.

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