Beginning with Vespers, or Evening Prayer, on December 24th and concluding with the mid-January Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, the Church celebrates Christmastide, the liturgical Season of Christmas. During this season, and directly following the December 25th celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, are two days that can help us to focus on what Linus van Pelt would call “the true meaning of Christmas.”
On the 26th and 27th we commemorate two feasts that bring to the forefront the ramifications of the call to follow that Babe in the manger, and do so in a way that has particular relevance in the 21st Century Church, especially in the decaying West. For imbedded in the Feasts of St. Stephen, and St. John the Evangelist is the playing out of what happens when the Good News comes up against a world that preaches a different message.
The story of St. Stephen, one of the first generation of deacons (diakonos, Greek for “servant”), is that of martyrdom. The word “martyr” is derived from the Greek term for “witness,” and so it is truly fitting that a man who was killed for his witnessing to the truth of the Gospel would go down in history not only as the protomartyr (“first martyr”) but also as the archetypal example of what martyrdom is in our minds: one whose blood was shed in witness to Jesus.
Near the end of his life, the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was quoted as saying that he would die in his bed while his immediate successor would die in prison and his next successor would be martyred in the public square. This quote and its context were both brought into question, but when asked to verify what he said, the Cardinal confirmed the quote but then added that he had also included the hopeful ending statement, “[then the next] successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”
For today’s bishops, embattled because of the world they face as well as their own very public frailties as human beings, it would be easy to capitulate to the world and sell the Gospel short in order to avoid the conflicts that might pick at old wounds and cause them personal discomfort. Yet it is just such times that call for bishops to serve God and His Church, to be diakonoi like St. Stephen – to preach as he did in the Synagogue of Freedmen (Acts 6:9) and to let the chips fall where they may.
Our bishops can also look to the man whose feast follows that of St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist. Who better to imitate than the man who was known as the Beloved Disciple, the man who cared for the Blessed Mother after the death of Jesus, and the man who wrote the Fourth Gospel as well as the Book of Revelation? Is there an early bishop who is today more relevant than St. John?
The younger brother of St. James the Greater, John was seemingly the youngest of the Twelve, and is most often depicted in Western art as an unbearded youth – as in “The Last Supper” of Leonardo da Vinci (sorry, Dan Brown, it’s John and not Mary Magdalene). In the Byzantine East he is most often seen as an old man, with white hair and beard, looking like the Catholic version of Socrates.
Tradition holds that St. John was the only Apostle not to die a martyr’s death. Yet because of his exile on the Greek island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, he can be considered a white martyr – one who suffers for witnessing to the Faith – rather than a red martyr – one who dies for the Faith.
St. John was devoted to our Lord and the Blessed Mother, so much so that at the foot of the Cross Jesus commissioned John and Mary to care for each other as son and mother. Theologians have taken this event as a way of looking at Mary’s role as Mother of the Church, with the Church being represented by the only member of the Twelve brave enough to be at the Cross.
As we embark on this new calendar year, let us pray that we all can be like St. Stephen and St. John – willing to live out the Gospel no matter the cost. And let us also pray in a special way that our Church leaders will find the courage to do the same, and thus fulfill not only the prophesy of Cardinal George but their special role as successors of the Apostles.