December 26: Violence is Conquered by Love
Readings: Acts 6:8–10; 7:54–59; Matthew 10:17–22
In the joyful atmosphere of Christmas, this commemoration [of the feast of St. Stephen, martyr] may seem out of place. For Christmas is the celebration of life and it fills us with sentiments of serenity and peace. Why disturb the charm with the memory of such atrocious violence? In reality, from the perspective of faith, the Feast of St Stephen is in full harmony with the deeper meaning of Christmas. In martyrdom, in fact, violence is conquered by love, death by life. Jesus transforms the death of those who love him into a dawn of new life!
In the martyrdom of Stephen is the same confrontation between good and evil, between hatred and forgiveness, between meekness and violence, which culminated in the Cross of Christ. Thus, the remembrance of the first martyr immediately dispels a false image of Christmas: the fairytale, sugarcoated image, which is not in the Gospel! The liturgy brings us back to the authentic meaning of the Incarnation, by linking Bethlehem to Calvary and by reminding us that the divine salvation involved the battle against sin, it passes through the narrow door of the Cross. Following the Gospel is certainly a demanding but beautiful, very beautiful journey, and those who follow it with faithfulness and courage receive the reward promised by the Lord to men and women of good will. As the angels sang on Christmas Day: “Peace! Peace!” This peace granted by God is capable of calming the conscience of those who, through the trials of life, are able to receive the Word of God and commit themselves to observing it with perseverance to the end (cf. Mt 10:22).
Taking the Word to Heart
St. Stephen was chosen as one of the deacons in the Acts of the Apostles. They tended to the needs of the poor, the orphans and the widows in the early Christian community. Celebrating his feast day in the midst of a season that can so often run to indulgence and even greed keeps us aware that God, not our desires, is the center of the season. The commemoration of a martyr so soon after Christmas is a sobering reminder that while God is love always and everywhere, hatred has still not been eliminated in our fallen world. But, like Jesus, like St. Stephen, we can only respond to that hatred and violence with love and forgiveness.
Bringing the Word to Life
If you’ve heard the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus,” you might recall that the saintly king and his trusty page go forth to help a needy man “on the Feast of Stephen.” It’s appropriate that we do something on this day to reach out to those who are most needy among us. The poor need our attention every day of the year, not just over the holidays. We might want to make a commitment today for some kind of long-term act of charity.
Pope Francis Prays
Today, brothers and sisters,
let us pray in a special way for those
who are discriminated against,
persecuted and killed for bearing witness to Christ.
If you bear this cross with love,
you have entered into the mystery of Christmas,
you are in the heart of Christ and of the Church.
St Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr,
sustain us on our daily journey,
which we hope to crown, in the end,
with the joyous assembly of Saints in Paradise.
May Mary Queen of Martyrs
help us to live Christmas
with the ardor of faith and love
which shone forth in St. Stephen
and in all of the martyrs of the Church.
Excerpted from The Joy of Advent: Daily Reflections from Pope Francis, by Diane M. Houdek
Diane M. Houdek is the author of Pope Francis and Our Call to Joy, Lent with St. Francis, and Advent with St. Francis. She is a professed Secular Franciscan with a bachelor’s degree in English and history from Marquette University and a master’s degree in English literature from Northwestern University. She is the digital book editor for Franciscan Media and past editor of Weekday Homily Helps and Bringing Home the Word. Her newest book is The Hope of Lent: Daily Reflections from Pope Francis, releasing in early 2017.