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Sermon for the Feast of St. Stephen

Lord, lay not this sin to their charge

“Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” T.S. Eliot observes in his 1935 drama, Murder in the Cathedral. That play along with the well-known and well-beloved Christmas Carol, Good King Wenceslaus, written by John Mason Neale in 1853 and sung to a 13th century spring dance melody (Tempus Adest Floridum), offer an intriguing commentary on the Christmas mystery. In Eliot’s play, a sermon preached by Archbishop Thomas a Becket Christmas morning serves as prologue to his martyrdom on December 29th, 1170. The sermon focuses on the Feast of Stephen which falls immediately after Christmas Day. The hymn draws upon a 12th account of a 10th century Duke of Bohemia’s generosity and service towards the poor.

St. Stephen is the proto-martyr, the first martyr and prototype of martyrdom in the Christian understanding. He was also one of the first set of deacons in the nascent and emerging Christian community. Thus, sacrifice and service are intimately connected. The hymn makes no direct reference to the Nativity of Christ but narrates a story of service to the poor on “the Feast of Stephen.” The sermon in the play makes explicit the connection between Christ’s birth and Stephen’s martyrdom and in so doing illuminates the deeper meaning of Christmas.

It is no accident that the Feast of St. Stephen follows directly upon the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. It highlights the deeper reality of the meaning of Christ’s holy birth. “Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figures, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs.” We celebrate Christ’s birth by remembering his Passion and death; such is the sacrament. “Do this in remembrance of me.” We cannot conceive of Christmas apart from the reality of his Passion and Death for us. “We celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross.” This is all part of the reality from which we shy away but which the special feasts of Christmas remind us, starting with St. Stephen’s day. As Eliot has the Archbishop note, “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?” But that is exactly the Christian reality.

Stephen was stoned to death because of his witness to Christ. Such is violence and persecution, the beginning of a long and continuing story of the persecution of Christians right up to this day. The lesson from Acts makes that clear. “Behold,” Stephen says, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” This leads to him being stoned and with a note about the complicity of Saul, later known as Paul. But most importantly, Stephen’s last words echo Christ’s words of forgiveness from the Cross. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” Jesus says; “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” says Stephen. Powerful words that along with the hymn and sermon teach us that Christ’s birth and its celebration mean sacrifice and service.

Despite the popular and rather sentimental nature of the carol, its reference to the Feast of Stephen helps to temper the cozy sentiments of the season with a dose of hard reality about the disconnect between comfort and poverty and between ‘peace and goodwill’, on the one hand, and persecution and violence, on the other hand. These realities the Christmas mystery will not let us ignore; in part through the Feast of Stephen which provides a stark reminder of sin and evil overcome by the grace of the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s sacrifice. As another popular carol, a 14th century carol translated by John Mason Neale, ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice,’ reminds us, “Christ was born for this.”

Christ’s holy nativity embraces the harsh realities of our world and day, now and always. Forgiveness is the quality of Christ which informs our lives of sacrifice and service. Such is the Christmas message of love in sacrifice and service.

Lord, lay not this sin to their charge

Fr. David Curry
Feast of Stephen, 2019