Today's liturgical feast day gives rise to the Christmas riddle (which you will now readily be able to answer): Name a famous Christmas Carol which never mentions anything whatsoever about Christmas, Jesus, or the Blessed Mother? Yes, thanks to good King Wenceslaus looking out on the Feast of Stephen we get to pose a riddle today. St. Stephen is regarded as the proto-martyr of the Christian faith, the first to die for our faith. It is because of his being the first that he is honored on the first day after Christmas.
As a boy in parochial elementary school, I was fascinated by the stories of the martyrs. Of course, I was also horrified by the methods in which they were cruelly tortured and executed. I can remember feeling that St. Paul was lucky that he was a Roman citizen so he could demand to be executed by the sword rather than the various tortures that were employed by the Roman Emperor. As an adult, I remember reading the novel Quo Vadis?, by Henryk Sienkiewicz, once again being horrified by those very same methods.
St. Stephen's death is recorded in the Scriptures and doesn't focus on the horrors of his torment. Rather, it records that he was serene and composed as he went to his death. The Acts of the Apostles was written by St. Luke. You have heard me say at least once before that this book of the Christian Scriptures is a parallel text to his Gospel. Just as Jesus dies a calm and serene death on the cross, the first to walk in those footsteps is also depicted as calm and serene.
Yesterday, a fellow CUSAN sent me a list of the apostles and evangelists which recorded how each of them met his death for the faith. So I am obviously not the only one to be fascinated by these accounts. However, rather than focus on the various methods of execution, I find it far more important to look at the courage of these men and women who were so confident in their faith that they were able to meet their end so bravely. Of course, that bravery was a form of evangelization as the many stories of the martyrs record that witnesses were often so moved by the way in which the Christians met their deaths that they accepted the faith as well.
Before the time of St. Francis of Assisi, it was the martyrs who were considered the saints which explains why many saints, including St. Francis, yearned for martyrdom. The definition of holiness has been broadened quite a bit since then. However, there is one thing that hasn't changed. One's life and one's death are part of the seamless garment that we call a life of holiness or "dying to self." Whether we actually shed blood for the faith is not the issue. Rather we are called to the little daily martyrdoms of selflessness, of emptying one's self for the sake of others. Just as Jesus let go of his divinity in order to be human, we must let go of our human needs in order to be joined to the Divinity.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator