28 Nov 2018 • From the Clergy
“Luise has already bagged Good King Wenceslas” was the message I received from Graham when he told me that St Stephen is the theme for this month’s magazine. Out of the window, then, went my first idea!
So what does that leave me? St Stephen: the first Christian martyr, whose story is told in chapters six and seven of Acts, where he is described as “A man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.”
Chosen by the disciples to help take charge of the care of widows, Stephen became the focus of fierce opposition due to the acts of power he performed and his fearless teaching. Even at his trial, Stephen preached against the attitudes and actions of his accusers, and proclaimed that the Jewish people, who had always persecuted the prophets sent by God, were now guilty of killing even His Son. This sealed Stephen’s fate and he was dragged outside to be stoned to death. As he was dying Stephen prayed: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
I am writing this letter fresh from the preparation of my Remembrance Sunday Sermon which focused on Christ’s teaching: “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” In words which strongly resemble Christ’s own words from the cross, this is exactly what St Stephen did. With his last breath, he obeyed his Master, asking forgiveness for those who were unjustly putting him to death.
By the time you read this, your thoughts will almost certainly be dominated by the fast approaching season of Advent and the business of Christmas. Remembrance Sunday and the thoughts associated with that time may seem out of place at a time when we are looking forward and preparing for Christmas. But it is precisely because we are preparing to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, that we should take time to remember His teaching on forgiveness and love of enemies. If we cannot forgive, cannot or will not pray for those for whom we feel, at best, no affinity and at worst enmity, then the world can never have true peace and our celebrations and singing of “peace on earth” will have a very hollow ring.
It has been pointed out to me that it’s easy for me to preach love and forgiveness for enemies – I haven’t lived through a war and have never seen a loved one suffering the long-term effects of, for example, living as a Prisoner of War. This is true, and I am extremely grateful for that fact. The closest I can claim is having a son who is a serving soldier. When he saw active service in Afghanistan, I admit my prayers were for his safety, not that of the Afghan insurgents. Had he been, or should he in the future be, killed in action, would I be able to pray for the enemy who killed him? I don’t know, and I fervently hope I will never find out!
However, enemies do not always come on such a large and obvious scale. They exist in the school and work-place bully; in the cheating spouse and gossiping friend or colleague. Most of us will have suffered at the hands of one or more of these, and these are the enemies we must try to love and for whom we must pray. Some of Stephen’s most vociferous accusers came from amongst his former associates. Their defection must have been a double blow for him, and yet he was still able to pray for them in his final moments.
The feast of St Stephen is, as I’m sure you know, celebrated on Boxing Day. I’m told that as the first Christian Martyr, he was singled out to have his feast day the closest to that of Christ. It is intended as a great honour. That’s as may be, but I have to admit that as a priest, I’m very glad not to have to preside over a Patronal Festival the day after Christmas Day! For most of the laity, unless they happen to go to a church dedicated to him, I suspect St Stephen’s Day passes them by. He is, on the whole, forgotten. Whilst sad, that is inevitable and understandable. Whilst we may forget his day, however, we should never forget Stephen’s faithful keeping to the teaching of Christ and we must try, in our own small way, to follow his example so that we can, with integrity, sing those carols about peace on earth.
Revd Sarah Cottrill