- Christ Church - https://christchurchwindsor.ca -

Sermon for the Feast of St. Stephen

“Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”

The Feast of Stephen comes right after the great festival of Christ’s holy birth. It illustrates something of the deeper meaning of the mystery of Christmas.

St. Stephen is the proto-martyr, the first Christian martyr, to be sure, but the word ‘proto’ here signifies something more. He is not only the first but also the prototype of all martyrdom. Martyrdom is about witness. Stephen shows us what Christian witness really means. And I don’t simply mean by being stoned to death, either literally or metaphorically! What, then, is the witness of St. Stephen which serves as the prototype of all Christian witness? Simply what is captured in the medieval carol of this season and, more specifically, of this day, “Good King Wenceslas look’d out/ On the Feast of Stephen”.

And what did he see? “A poor man…gath’ring winter fuel”. And what did the king do but set out with his page, his servant, with food and wine to attend to the poor man? The story of the carol tells us of the fears and uncertainty of the page-boy about the journey and of the answer of the kingly saint to “mark my footsteps, my good page, / Tread thou in them boldly” and so “in his master’s steps he trod”. The carol concludes by pointing out the moral that “Ye who now will bless the poor, / Shall yourselves find blessing”. True but only if we follow in the master’s steps. In a way, the carol is a parable of Christmas itself. Christ has come to our poor and impoverished humanity in the early winter of our discontent. He has come with food and wine and those who would be his followers must mark his footsteps and follow in them bearing the gifts of Christ to others as well.

Something of what that means is signaled in the Feast of St. Stephen as a parable of the Christmas message. “Christ”, as another carol, puts it, “was born for this”, meaning death and rejection, sacrifice and crucifixion. And by extension, it means that Christ’s holy birth embraces all the miseries and sorrows of our lives as well as the forms of persecution and evil that are either visited upon ourselves by others or that we visit upon ourselves and others in our rejection of God.

None of the grimmer and harsher realities of the world are hidden from view at Christmas. Instead they are drawn into the story of redeeming love, into the vision of our humanity transformed by the love of God. At the center of it lies the Babe of Bethlehem who is the Christ of Calvary. The Feast of St. Stephen reminds of that inescapable truth. At the heart of that is what is also signaled in this feast, namely, the forgiveness of sins.

There is God’s reaching down to the poverty of our humanity but that reaching down means especially the forgiveness of sins. At the heart of the story of Stephen is the account of his death where he imitates Christ on the cross by praying for the forgiveness of his persecutors, indeed, his executioners. And what is that about except the quality of divine love shaping our human loves in ways that go beyond all worldly expectations? In the midst of violence and strife, there is the peace of prayer, the desire for healing and reconciliation in the face of the most intense animosity. At the heart of sacrifice is not destruction but the redemptive power of the forgiveness of sins. “Christ was born for this.”

For us to follow in the master’s steps means to seek and to want forgiveness, to want what can only come from God to us and what can only be something of God in us. Such is the witness of Stephen, the prototype of our witness through the forgiveness of sins, literally through walking in the master’s steps, reaching out to others even as God in Christ has reached out to us, seeking what God wants not only for ourselves but for the whole world.

“Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”

Fr. David Curry
The Feast of St. Stephen 2015