by Kenneth Padley in St Michael’s church 26th December 2021
II Chronicles 24.20-24; Acts 7.51-60; Matthew 10.17-22
When I was a child, the King of Bohemia about whom we have just sung cut a sorry sight in my mind’s eye. That is because I had misheard the opening line of the Carol. I thought it said ‘Good King Wences… last looked out.’ I pictured a wizened old man, peering from the window of the castle in Prague, wistfully gazing over his kingdom for a final time. Given my misunderstanding, the remainder of the carol is all the more remarkable. Far from slumping onto his deathbed, the Czech monarch orders his page to gather a hamper of goodies before cajoling the youth to trudge with him through atrocious weather to bring some seasonal cheer to a peasant in the foothills. It’s a delightful carol, not just because it allows naughty school children to sing a rude word in the last verse, but because it inspires simple acts of charity such as support for FEED foodbank to which parishioners have contributed with especial generosity this Christmas through the collection boxes at the back of both St Michael’s and St Mary’s.
The Feast of Stephen was a fitting occasion for the munificence of Good King Wenceslas towards the peasant. This is because the king’s efforts to bless the poor echo the task of care for which St Stephen was commissioned in the Acts of the Apostles. At the start of Acts chapter 6, we read that the twelve Apostles were overwhelmed by their duties. In order to focus on their primary task of prayer and teaching, they appointed seven deacons to look after the needy. All seven deacons, we are told, were of good standing, wise and full of the Holy Spirit.
The diaconal ministry of St Stephen historically led many parishes to distribute funds to the destitute on his feast day on December 26thh. In some places a collection was made which was called ‘Stephening’. In other parishes, the alms chests were thrown open, a tradition that became known in the nineteenth century as ‘Boxing Day’.
St Stephen stands out among the seven deacons of Acts chapter 6 because of what happened next, his unenviable role as the first Christian martyr. Stephen was hauled before the Sanhedrin, the religious council in Jerusalem, on trumped-up charges. False witnesses alleged that he had claimed Jesus would destroy the Jerusalem Temple and overthrow the customs enshrined in the Jewish Law (6.13-14). In his defence, Stephen launched into a long speech which now constitutes Acts chapter 7. In this speech Stephen recounted the story of God’s people under the leadership of Abraham, Joseph, Moses. The heart of his argument is that God is not dependent on holy places like the Temple such that, just as God abandoned those who worshipped the golden calf in the wilderness, so also he will abandon those who do not heed God’s fresh intervention through the witness of Jesus. This is the point where the text we heard today picks up at the end of Acts chapter 7. We heard a narrative about the angry response of the Sanhedrin to Stephen’s preaching and his death at the hands of a lynch mob.
There are parallels between the way that St Luke narrates Stephen’s death and what we know about the execution of Jesus. Both men were condemned at sham trials. Both men were killed without the city wall. St Luke was doubtless deliberate in recording these similarities, wanting to emphasise how Stephen’s fate mirrored that of his master. From this, we infer that Stephen is vindicated in heaven (just as Jesus is) – and that the same reward awaits Christians who show comparable fortitude. There are enough differences, however, between the two deaths to assure us that the story of Stephen is rooted in history. For example, while Jesus was crucified, Stephen was stoned to death. Stoning was convenient from a ritual point of view because it avoided direct personal contact with the victim and so there was no risk of being contaminated by their blasphemy.
St Stephen became a popular saint in the Middles Ages, not only among those who invoked him against headaches. Here locally, Stephen’s death was important as a foreshadowing of what happened to Alban, proto-martyr of Britain. The parallel between Stephen and Alban is explored in the least-known piece of stained glass in St Michael’s, hidden at the top of the nave. On the right-hand side, Alban in blue announces ‘I am a Christian’. It is the confession which sealed his fate and which he probably made on this very site in the basilica of Verulamium. On the left we see Alban’s precursor, Stephen, dressed in a tunicle, the liturgical vestment of a deacon. Ominously, Stephen’s tunicle is coloured blood-red. As in today’s reading, Stephen in the window looks up to heaven where he sees Jesus as ‘Son of Man’. This connection between Stephen and Alban also inspired the dedication of the church by the King Harry roundabout, one of three medieval churches that ringed the tomb of Alban in the Abbey.
The final question about Stephen and his legacy is to consider why his festival became tied to the day immediately after Christmas. So if any of you today has been wondering why we have jumped 35 years from the baby Jesus yesterday to the death of Stephen today, we’re about to get to the punch line. In honesty, just as we don’t know when Jesus was born, we haven’t the foggiest idea when Stephen died. There is nothing in that passage from Acts chapter 7 that hints at a season – apart perhaps from the suggestion that stoning Stephen was sufficiently hot work that his murderers needed to remove their coats. However, since the late fourth century, the Feast of Stephen has been celebrated on December 26th, nestled in the shadow of Jesus’ nativity. This dating is a reminder that the baby of Bethlehem has consequences. Stephen was the first to pay with death for the birth of his master. And he has not been alone. Stephen’s sad fate has been followed by countless other martyrdoms, down to our very own day.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the brutal death of Stephen suggests that the world was left unchanged by the life and death of Jesus. But focus on the contrast between the end of Stephen and what we heard in today’s obscure first lesson from the Old Testament Second Book of Chronicles. Like Stephen, Zechariah was filled with the spirit of prophecy. Like Stephen, Zechariah condemned the sinfulness of his generation. And like Stephen, Zechariah’s unwelcome message brought down retribution as stones on his head.
As he lay dying, Zechariah, son of Yehoiada, cursed his killers, and said ‘May the Lord see and avenge!’ By contrast, the last words of Stephen pray for forgiveness. ‘Lord’, he says, ‘do not hold this sin against them’. In this, the death of Stephen copies the death of Jesus and not the end of Zechariah because on the cross Jesus prays for his killers ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’.
That change of approach is the great difference unlocked by Christmas and which rightly welds the death of Stephen to the birth of Jesus. The grace which Stephen found in Jesus, he extended to those intent on doing him the worst of evils. He didn’t just look up into the heavens but he found the life of heaven down on earth through what Jesus had done for him. Being redeemed by the Holy Child, the witness of Stephen stands as timeless example as we seek to follow in his footsteps. As with all God’s holy ones, Heat is in the very sod / Which the Saint has printed.