The First Martyr

This homily was given at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, Cottage Grove, OR on the Memorial of St. Stephen, December 26, 2022.

The Roman liturgical calendar places two feasts side by side: the birth of Christ and the death of Stephen.

Yesterday, the Church was clothed in white and gold to celebrate the newborn Christ-child; today, in red for the blood of the Church’s first martyr.

“Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin Mary’s womb and graciously visited the world … Today his soldier, Stephen, leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.”

Yet we know the child, laid in the wooden manger, would in fact be the first of all martyrs on the wood of the Cross; Stephen, on the second day of Christmas, is the second, first to follow in Christ’s footsteps on the royal road to heaven.

Love, self-giving love, unites them, the King and the first among his soldiers, as St. Fulgentius of Ruspe writes in a sixth-century sermon for this feast:

“The love that brought Christ down from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier.”

“Stephen’s love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. 

“Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven.”

“Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayers of Stephen.”

“This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy … It was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.”

“Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.”

“My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity; give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.”

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