It always puzzled me why Christmas day is immediately followed by the celebration of a martyrdom, that of Saint Stephens. Seemingly, the idyllic peace and joy of our Christmas eve with the crib is broken. The liturgical colour of white is suddenly changed into a dramatic red. Why? Now we can see that this connection is so natural. The whole purpose of the God’s becoming man is to deliver us from our sins. The emotions we feel while leaning over the crib with the Child in it are underlined by this sobering truth. The key of the aforementioned connection is Saint Stephen’s spirituality. He prays for those who stone him to death... This spirituality is the extension of the spirituality of Christmas, focused on our redemption. For the Incarnation reveals the equally puzzling fact: the love of God to sinners. The reality and immensity of this love was manifest in the Saviour given to us at Christmas Eve. This Love is perceived in that this Saviour, in the person of Christ, as incarnate, laid down his life for his people to atone for our sins and ransom our souls.
In Saint Stephen, we see this unconditional love − praying for sinners and the enemies. They are stoning him in a rage, yet, he extends the love revealed in Christmas over them. And this embrace, just like the Crib with its feelings and humbling message acts on us, performs its miracle. The young man, called Saulus, ‘who was consenting unto his death’, soon becomes converted to Christ. We will know him soon as Saint Paul.
We can contemplate further the connection with the Christmas story. The witnesses who stoned Steven laid down their clothes Saul’s feet. The clothes of his judges connect us with the swaddling cloth of the Saviour, who judges rightly and bestows us life. The angelic face of Steven, in the moment of his martyrdom, connects us with the face of the Lord’s angels in the Christmas night, when they see and proclaim God’s Glory and point to the Star above the crib… Thus, as we can see it, in Saint Stephen’s martyrdom we celebrate the Father’s unconditional and puzzling love toward sinners; us.
(Tuesday after Third Sunday in Advent, BCP old lectionary, Isaiah 38:1-20Mark 7:24-8:10)
Jewish mysticism highlights that God’s creative words through which the wold came into being has remained active! The ‘ten utterances’ remain active for ever! ‘Forever, Our Lord, your word stands firm in the heavens.’ (Psalm 119:89)
King Hezekiah prayed for recovery when he was sick unto death. Isaiah tells him to set his house in order for he shall die. He prays in a moving way: ‘Remember now, O Lord, I beseech thee, how I walked in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.’ As God’s special response, he recovered from his sickness. This recovery was grounded in Hezekiah’s service to the Lord and good life. Good and compassionate life ‘treasures up’ life for the future. This treasure is a vital resource at the time of tribulations. In this specific instance, we can see how God’s creative word remains active in ‘times of sickness’. The life-giving deeds and words of the person, at their depth the vivifying Love of God, remain active…bearing the possibility of renewed life and purpose in life.
The prophetic voice, which informed Hezekiah of what challenge he is facing and how God responds, is another instance of how the words of Creation have remained active. ‘Then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah, saying, Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard your prayer, I have seen thy tears.’
The mentioned Jewish mystics say that the real miracle is not the Creation of the world, or the departing of the waters of the Red Sea. Even greater miracle is that God’s creative words sustain the world. The same applies to our birth. The day to day renewal of our life is even greater miracle. The renewal of our moral life and compassion is the miracle of miracles. That is the value of our conversion, for a new beginning, expressed in Hezekiah’s thanksgiving ‘Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth. The Lord was ready to save me.’
The spiritual composition in Cranmer’s paring of the Old Testament reading with Mark’s Gospel is strikingly beautiful. We can think further what the Chasidic mystics said. Though Mark tells about the healing miracles of Jesus, the real focus of the passage (read in the context of Advent) is the birth of Jesus. We can define Christmas Eve in line with the above mystical approach as follows. The human birth of Jesus is the most powerful confirmation that God’s creative Word remains active throughout the life of Creation. Reading the two healing miracles of Mark’s account, gives a further depth of this understanding. The world was created in compassion! The Saviour was given to us to restore us; to heal our ways. The healings of Jesus reveal that God’s ‘Fiat’ has not remained silent since the beginning of Creation. Through the Gospels we know that these words are compassionate. The Son was sent and made Incarnate through the Father’s compassion for us. God’s words has remained active in order to follow us into our sickness and low-points in life.
Thus, the Advent season is a time when we are called to rediscover how God’s permanent creative Love is active since the creation of the world. Nay, since our being individually created! The Lord’s approaching is an ‘audible message’. In Him, the words of the Creator are resounding!
13 Dec. 16, Grahame Park, London.
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..