Thursday, December 26, 2013

On The Feast of Stephen

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When  the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even...

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Today is the second day of Christmas - two turtle doves and all the rest. It is also St. Stephen's Day, the day when the (western) Church remembers Stephen, deacon and martyr. (In the east, Stephen's commemoration is tomorrow.) 

In the diocese I serve there are two parishes that have taken Stephen as their patronal saint: one in Pittsfield and one in Westborough. A couple of reflections on this. 

First of all and practically speaking: I wonder how these two vibrant congregations celebrate their feast day, and I wonder if it isn't a bit like having a birthday on Christmas? Does it get lost in the shuffle? For that matter, we also have a parish in our diocese called Church of the Nativity. I will have the ask the respective rectors of that parish and the two St. Stephens how they manage the logistics of these things in the midst of the busy Christmas season. 

But my larger theological musings are about how a parish that takes its name from Stephen is shaped by that reality in its day to day life. How does that take hold? I know from having served a parish that took its name from another deacon, Francis of Assisi, there were aspects of our ministry and our remembering of Francis that took hold in us as a parish: a desire to be "instruments of God's peace," a love of all creatures great and small, and a strong sense of mission to and among the poor at the top of the list. These characteristics of St. Francis, the person, influenced the mission and ministry of St. Francis, the parish. 

So beyond the practicalities of how a congregation works a patronal feast day into their Christmas celebrations, I'm wondering what it means to try to emulate Stephen and how the light that shines forth from Pittsfield and Westborough illumines our whole diocese and beyond. What are the two St. Stephens teaching us about what it means to be "church" in this time and place?

The writer of Acts tells us that Stephen, "full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people," but that those who witnessed these signs and wonders "could not stand the wisdom and power with which he spoke." (See Acts 6) This hatred (fear?) soon turns to teeth-grinding rage and an angry mob stones Stephen. And yet he not only keeps his focus on God in the midst of all that violence but, like Jesus, prays for their forgiveness: "Lord, do not hold this against them..."

It seems to me that to honor Stephen means being a fearless Christian, willing to speak the truth no matter what the costs may be, even to the point of death. To be willing to die for the truth of the gospel if necessary, yet without bitterness or animosity. On a much smaller scale, how can we deflect the anger and range and "grinding teeth" that may from time to time in our lives get directed at us, and still pray for the other, "Lord, do not hold this against them?" I think of families that are rent asunder by divorce and I know that is not an easy thing to do. I think of Nelson Mandela, sitting in a prison cell and yet coming out not with a desire to get "an eye for an eye" but to forgive, in order to unleash new life and new possibilities.

A Church that seeks to model its witness on the life and death of Stephen will be a diaconal Church; that is to say, a Church that serves. It will be a bridge-building Church that interprets the needs of the world to the Church and seeks to share the good news entrusted to the Church with the world. As the twelve days of Christmas unfold, Stephen points the way to a way of being Church that embodies that great Christmas prayer from the late Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.

1 comment:

  1. Nice reflection, Rich. You've given me an idea of how I might write my annual report for St. Mary (who seems to have a plethora of feast day celebrations). I also will probably swipe your Howard Thurman quote for our newsletter. Thanks for the Christmas gifts!