Irony at Christmas
Everything is turned upside down on Christmas day. Everything the world loves is rejected. Everything heaven loves is cherished. Yesterday, we celebrated the birth of our Savior. Today, we celebrate the martyrdom of his soldier. The Church honors the death of St. Stephen on the second day of Christmas. It is an effort to shake us up. Christ is born. Our heart must be fixed on paradise.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 27: 37-39).
This seems a strange scripture to read during Christmas. Our trees are decked in sparkling lights. The smell of ham is fresh on our memory. The twelve days of Christmas are a time of much celebration. Why, then, do we celebrate a martyrdom now? At the heart of Christmas is an irony.
St. Fulgentius highlighted this irony in the fifth century:
“Yesterday, we celebrated the temporal Birth of our eternal King: today, we celebrate the triumphant passion of his Soldier…Jesus, while still continuing to be the eternal God, assumed to himself the lowly raiment of flesh, and entered the battlefield of this world: Stephen, laying aside the perishable garment of the body, ascended to the palace of heaven, there to reign forever… Yesterday was Jesus wrapped, for our sakes, in swaddling clothes: today was Stephen clothed with the robe of immortal glory. Yesterday a narrow crib contained the Infant Jesus: today the immensity of the heavenly court received the triumphant Stephen.”
Everything is upended with Jesus’ birth. Everything is inverted.
The world was once locked away to itself. The evil, violence, and hate was all one self-contained unit. Christmas comes and that unit is smashed open. Heaven invades earth. Today, what the world hates, the people of God embrace. What the world considers the end, the people of God see as the beginning. St. Stephen’s martyrdom is a reminder that heaven is opened. We must lift up our eyes.
Listen to St. Stephen’s words, even while the stones pummeled against him:
“‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:56).
He was being stoned to death, but he was joyful. Christ is born. What can the world do to us? All its hate and evil can pummel us. What does it matter, if our souls are fixed on the incarnation? How should we celebrate Christmas through this twelve day feast? Our hearts should beat in a totally different rhythm than the hearts of those around us.
C. S. Lewis had a unique take on Christmas. He could not stand the frenzy and consumerism, even in his time. He observed how families, on Christmas day, looked exhausted rather than merry, “as if there had been a long illness in the house.” He explained this in an article called: “Xmas and Christmas.” It imagines a fictitious land where the people celebrate two holidays on the same day: Exmas and Crissmas. Exmas is a celebration of excesses, materialism, and busyness. Crissmas is joyful, though a very quiet celebration, centered on Jesus in the crib. It is not so fictitious is it?
We must push back against our culture now. We must recognize that our holiday is a thoroughly different holiday than what society celebrates. Our Orthodox view of Christmas is as foreign to that of mainstream society, as our view of martyrdom. It is indeed perfectly fitting that we celebrate the death of a deacon today, on the second day of Christmas. We celebrate the irony that there are two camps: man’s world and God’s world.
How do we celebrate the twelve days of Christmas: with our eyes turned to heaven. Christ is born. God is incarnate. Nothing prevents us from reaching out and touching God.
Christ is born, and that truth permeates everything. Think of all the delicious food. We should savor each and every bite, cherish it, and give thanks. Why is it savory? Christ is born! Think of all the melodies of Christmas time. Why are they sublime? Christ is born! Think of the beauty of all nature. Why is it majestic? Christ is born! Everything is triumphant, even the death of God’s people, because Christ is born!
Today, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen. Today, even on the second day of Christmas, we commemorate the first Christian martyr. We are reminded now that nothing can hurt us. Let the world rage. We are right there with St. Stephen, and our eyes on eternity.
“I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
Christ is born! Glorify Him!