“Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”
The words of the kneeling Stephen as he dies echo Christ’s first word on the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” It is no accident that the first of the holy days of Christmas is The Feast of St. Stephen. It signifies two things that are of the greatest importance. The first is that without the Cross there is no manger. The second is that Christ’s holy nativity inaugurates the mission of the Church. We are to follow in the steps of Christ. He is, as one of the Eastertide collects puts it, “both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life” (Easter 2). The Feast of Stephen the Martyr reveals the real depth and meaning of Christmas.
It is about sacrifice and about a new orientation to life, a living for others in the spirit of forgiveness. Stephen is the proto-martyr, the first witness of Christ in the form of the giving of his life. In a way, he marks the beginning of a significant tradition, the tradition of the saints. What is that about? Simply the living reality of Christ in the body of his Church and in the lives and actions of his members.
Christmas celebrates the mystery of God with us. Part of its radical meaning is that Christ lives in us. His Incarnation marks his being with us but for a purpose. It is redemption. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”, to be sure, but born and given for what? To suffer and to die for us. Why? To show us the true life which God seeks for us – life with God. To show us that sin is the negative feature of our humanity and not its real and radical truth which is found in our being with God. Sacrifice, meaning the giving over of ourselves to the one who has given himself fully for us, becomes the true measure and meaning of our lives. It is ‘another who lives in us’, the other who is Christ Jesus the Lord. Herein lies the importance of the Feast of Stephen.
It highlights the very form of our celebration of Christ’s nativity. We celebrate mass, Christ’s mass, to be specific, however much that word has been part of the controversies between some Protestants and some Catholics. We celebrate Christmas with the vivid reminder that the babe of Bethlehem is the Christ of Calvary who “on the night in which he was betrayed” provides himself for us, body broken and blood outpoured in bread and wine. “Our Passover is sacrificed for us”. His holy birth signals his passion and death without which he cannot live in us and we in him. As the poet/preacher John Donne notes, “his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day”. They have no meaning apart from one another. “Christ and His cross were never parted, but that all His life long was a continuous cross”, as Lancelot Andrewes observes. “Christ was born for this”, as one of the carols of the season proclaims. And for us, it means following in our “master’s footsteps” as the carol Good King Wenceslaus tells us.
The martyrdom of Stephen recalls us to the holy purpose and deeper meaning of Christmas. It means sacrifice and service modelled upon the life of Christ. The insight of Stephen provides the model; as with Christ so with us.
The overarching note is that of forgiveness. This is what John the Baptist has told us too. “Behold”, he says, “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world”. That realization changes everything. It transcends the animosities and divisions of our hearts and souls. It changes how we view and deal with a torn and tortured world. It signals the power of forgiveness.
Stephen has grasped the inner logic and meaning of the Christian Faith. It is about redemptive suffering but only through the power and grace of divine forgiveness. His last words echo the last and first word of Christ from the Cross. “Lord Jesus”, he says, “receive my spirit” even as Jesus in the last word of the Cross prays, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”. Christ’s first word of forgiveness is echoed in the last word of Stephen’s martyrdom, “Lord,” he says, “lay not this sin to their charge.” In the mercies of Christ’s holy birth there is more to our humanity than just the seemingly unending spectacle of destruction and disarray.
There is our being with the one who comes to be with us, the one who is born and given for us that his life may live in us. It means forgiveness.
“Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”
Fr. David Curry
The Feast of St. Stephen, 2016