26th December 2021
Happy Christmas! Happy St Stephen’s Day!
Stephen preached a very lengthy sermon to the Jewish Sanhedrin, recounting the whole history of the Jewish people from Abraham to Jesus. But you’ll be relieved to hear that mine will be shorter.
In the early days of the Jerusalem Christian Church, there was a problem about achieving a fair distribution of alms to Christian widows. Stephen had been appointed along with six others as the first deacons, to take on this responsibility. However, Stephen quickly turned out to be an eloquent exponent of Christianity in the Jewish synagogues. [See picture, below] But he got carried away with his own convictions. He so infuriated the Jewish authorities that he found himself being hauled up before the high priest. Conducting his own defence, he started by treating the Sanhedrin to a long
history of the Jewish people from Abraham onwards. I gather there was a shortage of competent shorthand typists in the first decade AD. So it’s difficult not to wonder if his peroration was really as detailed and lengthy as is recorded. [See picture, below] But the gist was probably as recorded.
As we heard in the first reading, he finished by addressing the Sanhedrin as ‘you stiff-necked people’ and ‘betrayers and murderers’. Not exactly the best way to win friends and influence people. Then he gazed into heaven and said he saw ‘the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God’. Courageous. But this constituted blasphemy and was the final straw for the Jewish authorities, resulting in him being stoned to death.
Quite a contrast with the joy and simplicity of Christmas, all of this! Yet there is continuity in Stephen’s death with that of Jesus, and there are signs of Jesus’s eventual fate even in the stories of his first
days. When Mary and Joseph took their baby to the Temple, Simeon told Mary that her son would be ‘a sign that that will be opposed’ and that ‘a sword will pierce your own soul’. And the magi, when they came, brought myrrh, used for anointing a body – an odd gift for a healthy new baby. [See picture, below]
There was a moving cartoon by Papas from the front page of the Guardian on Christmas Eve 1969. It doesn’t need any explanation: the message is clear. And ‘how did it end?’ Well, faith can come at serious cost. Stephen discovered this: the first to follow Jesus to martyrdom for the Christian faith, the first of many, both then and through to today.
It’s a funny thing, the willingness to die. In 1849, the Italian hero Garibaldi, who united the Italian nation, summoned his followers to action with this: ‘I have nothing to offer you but hunger and thirst, hardship and death’, and they followed Garibaldi to war, apparently, in their hundreds. Jesus constantly warned his disciples
that there would be a cost to following him and the Christian way.
By the way, a slight digression, but do you know how Garibaldi biscuits got their name? [See picture, below] There are various stories, but the one I like is this. It is said that in 1854, in the course of tour of Britain, he was guest at a reception in Tynemouth. There were Eccles cake on the menu, and Garibaldi managed to sit on one, presumably parked on a chair by a fellow guest. And thus he produced the first of what as children we called ‘squashed fly biscuits’. There are more prosaic accounts around of how they got their name, but that’s the one I like. What is certain is that Peek Freans starting producing them a few years later, and, for whatever reason, called them Garibaldi biscuits.
But I have digressed with this Christmas cracker-type story, and must return to my theme. And that is that Jesus came to the Cross and Stephen came to stoning. But both of them ended their lives on a note of
confidence, like the followers of Garibaldi, but more so. [See picture, below] Following the example of Jesus his master, Stephen’s last words were: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’ and ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’. And it is Christmas, the birth of the Lord, which made all this possible. Christmas, the time of giving and receiving; the model for constantly receiving the love of God, and constantly giving to those around us and those far away.
Happy Christmas and happy and reflective St Stephen Day!