Christmas in Darkness

Rembrandt, The Stoning of Saint Stephen (1625)

Today, December 26, is the Feast of Saint Stephen the Protomartyr. It is always striking to me that the liturgical calendar follows up the Feast of Nativity with commemorations of St Stephen, who was stoned for his witness to the Risen Christ (December 26), of St John the Evangelist, who died in exile (December 27), and of the Holy Innocents, who were slaughtered by King Herod (December 28). The First Advent leans forward to the Second.

For all of its joy and mirth and light, Christmas doesn’t actually bring an end to our darkness. No one needs to tell us this. We know it experientially. We wake up on December 26 (or on January 6, when Christmastide gives way to Epiphany) with all of the same problems. The diagnosis doesn’t miraculously change. The devilish temptations don’t magically disappear. The dead remain painfully cold in their graves.

Christmas signals the end of the old order of sin, suffering, and death. But, taken in isolation, it doesn’t actually bring it to pass. The mystery of Christ’s nativity is connected like a chain to the subsequent mysteries of his suffering, crucifixion, and death. Christ’s birth sets him on a journey that will end in the cruel death of the cross. The death of the Holy Innocents (and then, later in the gospel, the beheading of John the Baptist) foreshadows this.

But even the crucifixion, taken in isolation, doesn’t shatter the darkness. It too, is tethered to the further mysteries of Christ’s descent, resurrection, and ascent to the Father’s right hand. But, painfully, even these glorious mysteries, as we well know, have not brought an end to our suffering. Eastertide bears its own burdens as well.

And so we come to St Stephen, the Spirit-filled deacon (Acts 6:5), wonderworker (Acts 6:8) and exegete of redemptive history (Acts 7). Even he, on this side of Christ’s ascension, is not spared martyrdom.

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

And herein we see the light breaking through the darkness that even the ascension does not remove from our experience: the Risen Lord Jesus, the divine-human Son of Man, temporarily suspends his session–his having sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high–and stands in honor of his first martyr. Daniel’s promise of the Son of Man coming in the clouds is given a kind of preview, at least in its first moment, at the protomartyr’s death.

Soon, this same Jesus will stand once again from his throne and return to earth to make all things new. And so, the chain will be complete: the whole mystery of Christ–his incarnation, life, death, burial, descent, resurrection, ascension, session–will be brought to a climactic conclusion in his Second Advent to judge the quick and the dead, to defeat all his and our enemies, and to usher in a new creation. And the denouement: a world of perpetual light (Revelation 22:5).

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