But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul was consenting to his death. (Acts 7:55-8:1)
I’ve heard it said that the wooden manger, a couple of planks laid across two trestles, foreshadows the wooden beams of the cross. If that’s a little too subtle an indication of what the incarnation is about, there’s this: on the Second Day of Christmas, when the dishes from Christmas dinner have hardly had time to dry and be put away, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, the Proto-martyr, the first Christian to die for the Faith after the death of Christ himself. Could there possibly be a more jarring reminder that our Joy is not care-free, that Grace is not cheap, and that the Nativity leads directly to the Crucifixion?
St. Stephen himself was one of the original deacons, who were chosen in the following way:
And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." (Acts 6:2-4)
Despite being appointed “to serve tables”, Stephen, like his fellow Deacon Philip (see here), was in fact also called upon to preach the word of God (Acts 7), which is what leads to his death. St. Stephen’s story is a reminder that we all have different roles to play, but all of us are called upon to witness to the Gospel (μάρτυς, the Greek word from which we get the word martyr, means “witness”).
The very origin of that word shows us that the simple fact of being a witness to Christ provokes strong, sometimes violent, opposition. But note the young man Saul (the future St. Paul, Apostle and Martyr), who looks on in approval, maybe even as a leader or instigator of St. Stephen’s stoning. It’s possible that the example of the Proto-martyr helped to prepare him for his eventual conversion, and that the ferocity of his persecution of Christians between Stephen’s death and his own encounter with the risen Christ was borne of a desperate resistance to the gentle promptings that were stirring in his heart. In any case, we see that we should not be discouraged even by the strongest opposition, because the power of Christ is stronger still. We need to do our part, and trust Him to do the rest.
And so if we take the long view, commemorating the death of the First Martyr at this time is not at all strange. The Liturgical Calendar reminds us, on the Second Day of Christmas, that we need to embrace the Gospel in its entirety: the joy of the Nativity leads to the sorrow of Cavalry, which itself prepares the way for the still greater glory of Easter. I’ll give St. Peter the final word:
There is cause for rejoicing here. You may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials; but this is so that your faith, which is more precious than the passing splendor of fire-tried gold, may by its genuineness lead to praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ appears. (1 Peter. 1:6-7)