O Earliest Witness!

Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr
December 26, 2022

Today’s Readings:


The Demidoff Altarpiece: Saint Stephen
Representation of St. Stephen from The Demidoff Altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli, an Italian Renaissance painter of the late fifteenth century. This many-panelled altarpiece or polyptic painted by Crivelli in 1476, sat on the high altar of the church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno, east central Italy. It is now in the National Gallery in London, England.

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, first martyr for the Christian faith. He must have been a beautiful soul.

Stephen, filled with grace and power,
was working great wonders and signs among the people.
Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen,
Cyrenians, and Alexandrians,
and people from Cilicia and Asia,
came forward and debated with Stephen,
but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.

Acts of the Apostles 6: 8-10

The commemoration and readings are a drastic turn from singing angels and worshiping shepherds.The Liturgy moves quickly from welcoming a cooing baby to weeping at the death of innocence.

They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.
The witnesses laid down their cloaks
at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As they were stoning Stephen, he called out
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

Acts 7: 54-59

Why does the Church make such a drastic turn in the tone of worship? One thought might be to keep us practical and focused on what life in Christ truly means, even as we’re all still wrapped in angels and alleluias.

Stephen, like Jesus, “was filled with grace and power, … working great wonders and signs among the people.” He, as Jesus would, met vicious resistance to his message of love and reconciliation. He, as Jesus would, died a martyr’s death while forgiving his enemies.

The Church turns us to the stark truth for anyone who lets Christ truly be born in their hearts. WE will suffer as Jesus did – as Stephen did. The grace and power of Christ in our life will be met with resistance, or at least indifference.

We may not shed blood but, in Christ, we will die to self. When we act for justice for the poor and mercy for the suffering, we will be politically frustrated and persecuted. When we forgive rather than hate, we will be mocked. Powerful people, like the yet unconverted Saul in today’s second reading, may catalyze our suffering by their determined hard-heartedness.

Our Gospel confirms the painful truth as Jesus says:

You will be hated by all because of my name,
but whoever endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew 10:22

Tomorrow, the liturgy picks up the poetic readings from John’s letters. These are delights to the soul. 

But for today, it is a hard look, with Stephen, at what Christmas ultimately invites us to.

Poetry: O Captain of the Martyr Host – This is an English adaptation of a medieval hymn O qui tuo, dux martyrum, written by Jean Baptiste de Santeüil. It appeared in the Cluniac Breviary, 1686.

O Captain of the Martyr Host!
O peerless in renown! 

Not from the fading flowers of earth 
Weave we for thee a crown.
The stones that smote thee, in thy blood 
Made beauteous and divine, 
All in a halo heavenly bright 
About thy temples shine. 
The scars upon thy sacred brow 
Throw beams of glory round; 
The splendours of thy bruised face 
The very sun confound. 
Oh, earliest Victim sacrificed 
To thy dear Victim Lord! 
Oh, earliest witness to the Faith 
Of thy Incarnate God! 
Thou to the heavenly Canaan first 
Through the Red Sea didst go, 
And to the Martyrs' countless host, 
Their path of glory show. 
Erewhile a servant of the poor, 
Now at the Lamb's high Feast, 
In blood-empurpled robe array'd, 
A welcome nuptial guest! 
To Jesus, born of Virgin bright, 
Praise with the Father be; 
Praise to the Spirit Paraclete, 
Through all eternity.

Music: Gabriel’s Oboe from the movie “The Mission”, played by Henrik Chaim Goldschmidt,  principal oboist of The Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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