“Receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).
The day after Christmas, the scriptures get back to work with the martyrdom of Stephen, a Greek-speaking deacon serving in the Jerusalem community. He is the first Christian martyr, and at his trial before the Sanhedrin he recapitulates salvation history from Abraham to David to argue that Jesus is the crucified and risen Messiah, now standing at God’s right hand. Stephen’s long speech provokes the high priest and council, and they order him stoned for blasphemy. As Jesus had before him, Stephen forgives his killers and commends his spirit to God as a hail of stones falls on him. The dramatic story is a prelude to another story that will take up most of the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen’s executioners remove their coats and lay them at the feet of Saul, who will surpass Stephen’s fervor and eloquence in preaching Jesus before his own execution in Rome. What we celebrate so poignantly at Christmas requires total commitment.
Incarnation contains redemption. God’s image appears in our DNA, manifested first in Jesus, but flowing in every human being bound for glory. Our commercial and cultural nod to Christmas hides a mystery so dynamic that a lifetime of meditation is needed to grasp its implications. God’s self-emptying into human history is less an event than an ongoing miracle of transformation. A knock at the door of our hearts at midnight rouses us. We hesitate, postpone and ponder the risks of allowing this interruption of our personal plans, so intimate an intrusion into the small world of our own happiness. Nothing comes crashing down on the perfect life like a love story we cannot control or predict.
Good King Wenceslaus looked out his window on the feast of Stephen. By opening his hearth and his heart to a poor man, he welcomed Christ. We commend ourselves to the spirit of Christmas, knowing that this is only the beginning of a lifelong commitment that will change everything.