“Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:6
On December 25th we celebrate Christmas. With delight and excitement we welcome the birth of Jesus, God himself, who has come to be with us. On the next day the church has us reflect on the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr. Here the liturgy gives a striking, even somewhat puzzling, contrast of Christian joy on one day and Christian suffering on the next.
Why does the church have us remember the death of a faithful disciple the very day after we celebrate the Lord’s birth?
The answer lies in the fact that Jesus, the Babe we celebrate in this season, was more than an ordinary baby. He was a Baby King who came to establish God’s reign on earth. Fr. Robert Barron says he came by stealth to overturn his Father’s enemies and to reclaim the world for his kingdom.
On December 26th the liturgy fast forwards to the time after the King has grown up and accomplished his work. He has died, is risen, and ascended to his Father. He left behind a community of disciples filled with the Spirit, who continue his work. These women and men have decided to give their lives to Jesus and to follow him whatever the cost.
Stephen was the first of these to pay the cost of discipleship with his life. His witness signals to us the fuller meaning of Christmas. Christ comes to us as our king who conquered death and sin by relinquishing his life. And he calls us as his disciples to share in his conquest by relinquishing our lives in faithfulness to him. Although many contemporary disciples throughout the world are suffering martyrdom like Stephen, most of us imitate him by dying to ourselves. We give up some of our desires and needs to link up with Jesus and work with him.
Here’s a suggestion for our continuing celebration of the days of Christmas. Let’s renew our decision to follow King Jesus by praying the verse that both he and Stephen prayed as they laid down their lives: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (see Lk 23:46).