Monday, December 26, 2016

On the Feast of Stephen

Christmas is not over. It's just beginning. The only people for whom Christmas is over are those who skipped Advent. Today is but the second day of Christmas, the day my true love gave to me two turtledoves. Why turtledoves? Turtle doves symbolize love and faithfulness because they mate for life, work together to build nests and raise their young together. Like marriage itself, this first and foremost points to God's faithfulness to us.

According to the law of Moses (see Leviticus 12:8), two turtle doves could replace a lamb as the sacrifice prescribed for consecrating a firstborn son to God. Because they were poor, St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin sacrificed two turtle doves, or maybe even two pigeons (Luke 2:24), in obedience to what the law required of them. It is for these reasons that turtle doves are still associated with Christmas.

Being the second day of Christmas, today is also the Feast of St Stephen. Stephen was one of the seven Spirit-filled men chosen by the primitive Church in Jerusalem, which was led by the Apostles, to ensure that the Greek-speaking widows received their fair amount of food in the daily distribution. The primitive Church described in Acts held all things in common. A dispute had arisen that, apparently, was taking up too much of the Apostles' time. Time they felt their time was better spent in prayer and preaching the Good News.

Pretty soon some of these seven Spirit-filled men, specifically Stephen and Philip, who have been considered the first deacons at least since the time of St Ireneaus of Lyons (late 100s to early 200s), were themselves proclaiming the saving power of Jesus Christ. Stephen, who was stoned to death for his witness, has an entire chapter, Acts 7, dedicated to his activities. It contains a long discourse that gives us, I think (I am with Martin Hengel, a learned New Testament scholar who insisted, contra many, on the historical accuracy of the Acts of the Apostles), the basic content of Stephen's preaching.

The Stoning of St. Stephen, by Michail Damaskinos

In no way did Stephen imitate our Lord more than when, as he was being hit with stones thrown by the angry mob, incited by a Pharisaical fanatic known as Saul of Tarsus, a graduate of the Gamaliel Rabbincal school, he pleaded for those stoning him: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). I am convinced that Saul's conversion was the Lord's answer to Stephen's prayer and his subsequent intercession for the man we know as St Paul, the Apostle.

Along with St Martin of Tours, on whose feast I was born (11 November), St Stephen (Stephen being my middle name and my Dad's name) is my patron saint from birth. Perhaps I was destined to be a deacon. Above all, a deacon is a witness (in Greek martyr) to the saving power of Christ. THese are the reasons that St Stephen has been the patron saint of Kαθολικός διάκονος since its inception (my blog existed for a little more than year as Scott Dodge for Nobody).

St Stephen, deacon and proto-martyr, on this, your feast day, pray for us.

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