The Twelve Days of Christmas began yesterday with Christmas Day, on which we celebrate the birth of Christ. On the Second Day of Christmas, we celebrate the birth into eternal life of Saint Stephen, the first martyr. And yet, in doing so, our attention remains fixed on Christ, as it always does when we celebrate the lives of saints.
Nothing makes this more clear than the first antiphon for Matins (morning prayer) for the Feast of Saint Stephen in the Church's Liturgy of the Hours. I especially like the English translation of the antiphon from the 1962 breviary:
He that once a little Child
Shivering in the manger lay
Set on Stephen's blessed head
A crown that fadeth not away.
O come, let us worship Him!
The glory of the saints and martyrs, their triumphs over the evils of this world—even when those triumphs came at the cost of physical death—point always back to Christ, their salvation and their assurance of everlasting life. This is particularly true in the case of Saint Stephen, called protomartyr because he is the first Christian to shed his blood rather than to deny his faith in Christ.
Because he was so persuasive, Stephen was despised by Greek-speaking Jews who denied the divinity of Christ, and they hauled him before the Sanhedrin on charges of blasphemy. Stephen might have avoided death, if only he had kept silent. Yet filled with the Holy Spirit, he, echoing the words of Christ, announced that he saw the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God. He bore witness to Christ, and to His Second Coming, at the cost of his own life.
Is there a better lesson for us on this Second Day of Christmas? Being a follower of Christ is not all presents and cookies and holiday feasts. When we embrace the Child in the manger, we embrace also the Man upon the Cross. We look back to His birth and forward to His Second Coming. We cannot have one without the other.
Saint Stephen understood that, and in bearing witness to Christ even at the cost of his own life, he set an example for us all. If we were called to live up to it, would we?
You can learn more about the life of Saint Stephen in Saint Stephen, the First Martyr.
(A contemporary Serbian Orthodox icon of Saint Stephen, deacon and protomartyr. Photo © Scott P. Richert)