“Good King Wenceslas looked out
on the Feast of Stephen.”
—The beloved Christmas carol
I first learned of Stephen, as I suspect many of us do, via Wenceslas and his walk over deep, crisp, and even snow. In that lovely song, Stephen serves largely as the backdrop for an allegory about kingship. Wenceslas is celebrated because he ‘helps the poor,’ both the rural person gathering fuel and the more urban domestic servant. The carol rather boldly proclaims that kings who help the poor will themselves find blessing.
Let’s pause, just for a moment, to note that this is not the general pattern of authority, kingship or president-ship or otherwise. They might want to look benevolent, perhaps pause for a photo-op helping with the gathering of firewood, but then they’re gone again to dinners and donors. Kings, senators, presidents, politicians—they’re notorious, often rightly so, for their failure to care for the poor. Wenceslas is held up as an exception, and it’s not an accident that Stephen’s Feast is the stage for that telling.
There is something so right about the Feast of Stephen morphing into a call to care for those in need in our human family. Stephen, as the Book of Acts relates, was one of the first deacons, a group of logistics officers charged with organizing the wealth of Christians so that it could be shared more effectively. Deacons served and helped everyone share, leaders as much by example as by preaching or teaching.
Also, Stephen was at least a little annoying, judging by the reply of his peers to his self-confidence (‘full of grace and power,’ says the scripture) and his long speeches about how important Jesus is (he orates the longest speech in all of Acts). These result in his being stoned to death by these same peers. He becomes the first martyr of the church.
If you read that long speech by Stephen in Acts 6, you’ll find that it tells the history of Israel as a long narrative of people looking for justice and liberation, and finding it in God and God’s teachings through the prophets. Stephen’s telling also emphasizes the failure of many people to look beyond their own momentary self-interest, and committing violence in place of generosity. Stephen dies with a vision of heaven in his eyes and a call to forgiveness on his lips, looking beyond himself and his own needs to the end. So, he probably was annoying, but also divinely inspired and lovely. We miss that those things sometimes go together.
We should probably never put ourselves into the minds of the martyrs of the church as if we know exactly what we’re talking about—I suspect that experiencing martyrdom is different for each, and more complex than we often imagine—but I can’t help but wonder whether Stephen would actually be quite happy to have vanished into the background of celebrating Jesus’s birth. I wonder if his remembrance day, fading into calls to transform authority and multiply generosity, would have thrilled him. I wonder if he’d rather we forgot his name and got about the business of loving each other, and supporting each other, in ways that transform how we think about power, wealth, and self-importance.
The Feast of Saint Stephen is one of those feasts that is best observed in the doing, rather than the telling. May today be an occasion to look for visions of heaven; to offer forgiveness on our lips; and to share of our gifts with this desperate, damaged world.