*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 26th of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
For those who observe, may I wish you a very happy 2nd day of Christmas. For some, the liturgical season of Christmas is just beginning, while for others (including myself), the tree and decorations come down today. Good news! Christians aren’t bound to any one practice.
Today is the only of the twelve days of Christmas to get its carol- you may know it as “Good King Wenceslas” from whence we hear:
Good King Wenceslas looked out,
on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even
(I always hear this in the voice of the muppet Bean Bunny from a Muppets Christmas Carol)
The second day of Christmas is also the feast of Stephen. Usually, the Stephen being referred to is the first Christian martyr whose story is recorded in the 6th and 7th chapters of Acts.
Now- because history is messy, the feast of St. Stephen has also been held in August for both this St Stephen and St Stephen of Hungary, who was coronated on Christmas Day, and another Steffan who was a missionary to Sweden in the 11th century. In some Nordic and eastern European territories, you may find a curious blending of the lives of the different Stephens.
But this is primarily a day about the first martyr and deacon of the church. We meet him in the Acts of the Apostles in the 6th chapter as a Hellenistic Jew (that is, a Jewish person raised in a Greek context). He is appointed as a deacon and six others to ensure that the widows of the non-Hebraic Jews would also receive charity.
And then, in the 7th chapter, he gives a sermon for the ages. In it, Stephen does a few remarkable things.
The first is the imitation of Christ- that is, he speaks in front of the Sanhedrin, explaining from the Old Testament how the Messiah was foretold and fulfilled in Jesus. In doing so, he is accused of blasphemy and is killed. Before dying, he asks that God forgive those who are killing him.
The second is his contempt for the temple; before the temple’s destruction in Jerusalem in AD 70, it was still frequented by Christians. Sure, it had to go in the new dispensation, but that first generation of Christians had difficulty letting it go. Stephen calls it a place “fashioned with hands”…. Ooh, that’s some Old Testament heat he’s throwing there. “Fashioned with hands” is idol talk. Stephen is calling what was once the dwelling place of Yahweh, now, an idol.
And Stephen was stoned to death and is today one of the patron saints of stonemasons, which might seem kind of cheeky until you remember that this is the way of Jesus. The thing which caused death is the cause of eternal life. Crosses might seem pious to us moderns, but it was the equivalent of the electric chair in the first century.
St Stephens day does not have anything to do with the Christmas season save for the fact that his relics were said to have been translated to the Hagia Sion in Jerusalem in 415 on December 26th. In the Realms of the English commonwealth, the day doubles as boxing day, which needs to be renamed. It is “give little presents to those who labor in your service day,” but that is not as euphonious. Although, as a kid, I had an image of Mike Tyson wearing a robe and sipping tea in my mind.
Today we remember St. Stephen, the deacon and first to follow in the steps of our Saviors martyrdom.
The Last Word for today comes from Acts 7- the martyrdom of Stephen:
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears and all rushed together against him with a loud shout. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 26th of December 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man wondering how best to cook his two turtle doves, Christopher Gillespie
The show is written and read by a man who reminds you that we call it a “turtle” dove because the Hebrew word for dove is tur, the Latin was turtur, and in English, that became “turtle...” I am Dan van Voorhis.
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