Where I was born in Co. Tyrone, today is generally known as ‘Boxing Day’. It’s a pity that – at least in that part of Ireland – the influence of British television and culture has had the effect of erasing St Stephen from the calendar.
Thankfully, in most of the rest of Ireland the day after Christmas Day is still commemorated as St Stephen’s Day – the liturgical feastday of the first martyr.
It’s no accident that the commemoration of the first Christian martyr comes so close to Christmas. Before his passion, Christ told his followers they would suffer for their faith – and so it was with Stephen.
It’s worth bringing to mind the biblical account of the protomartyr. Stephen was a deacon in the early Church at Jerusalem whose preaching about God revealed in Christ aroused anger amongst those opposed to the emergence of this new community. Denounced for blasphemy, he made a long speech at his trial to the Sanhedrin which takes up almost all of chapter seven of the Acts of the Apostles.
In the speech he traces the history of the Hebrew people through Abraham and Moses down to Jesus to prove his case that the God of the Israelites and the God revealed in Jesus Christ is the same.
The story of Stephen is a story that lives today in the millions of Christians who are persecuted for their Faith throughout the world”
This enraged the crowd to such an extent that they stoned Stephen to death. The New Testament recalls it thus: “As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’. Then he knelt down and said along, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’: and with these words he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60).
But, the story of Stephen is not just an account of events 2,000 years ago. His is a story that lives today in the millions of Christians who are persecuted for their Faith throughout the world. Whether in Iraq or Syria, North Korea or China – more Christians are persecuted and even killed today than at any point in the history of the Church.
It’s a sobering reflection and one that should not escape our attention and our prayers.
I’ve been privileged in my work to visit suffering Christian communities who live out their Faith under constant threat. I’ve sat with them, listened to them, prayed with them and wept with them. The one thing that they have always pleaded is simple: “Don’t forget us”. Wouldn’t it be a fine resolution for 2020 if we all committed ourselves in our parishes and communities to keep in our prayers the plight of those who suffer for their faith and ask our Church leaders and politicians to be more vocal in highlighting their suffering?
St Stephen – pray for us.