“St. Stephen’s memorial is always the day after Christmas. But somehow, it always surprises me. We’ve only just arrived at the cozy stable with the little baby under the shining stars, and now we have to commemorate the Church’s first martyr, a guy who was stoned to death?
Sometimes I feel a similar surprise when I see traditional iconographic depictions of the Nativity. I mean, I know that “Away in the Manger” is a little saccharine. But some of these icon Nativity scenes make it look like Jesus was born in a haunted graveyard. In his swaddling clothes, Jesus looks like a little mummy child. Not only is Mary not holding her baby – she’s not even looking at him. Instead of a stable with a dusting of snow on the roof, they’re in a cave – a cave which looks like some rent in the earth which reveals the realm of Hades. And where is Joseph? He’s huddled in a corner with a serious expression on his face, being addressed by some creepy old guy – who happens to be the devil.
After the kinds of Nativity scenes that many of us are used to, this is like a Christmas-themed nightmare.
The question arises, then: what is the Church’s Tradition saying to us in all of this, in its artistic tradition and its liturgical calendar?
It’s saying that Christmas is not a holiday for the content of the world.
Jesus was not born in a secret oasis, removed from the world’s darkness and pain. He was born in that battleground which is our earthly existence, in this world which is indeed something of a haunted graveyard.
We sometimes suppose that the holidays (and perhaps especially Christmas) are events which only happy people with lots of friends and family are entitled to enjoy. And maybe that is the case with some holidays. But it’s not the case with Christmas.
Christmas is a holiday for the broken of the world. It is a holiday for those who feel the darkness and loneliness of the cave; for those who experience, with St. Joseph, the temptations of the Evil One, struggling to maintain faith in the Christian mystery; for those who, like Jesus in his swaddling burial clothes, feel the weight of their feeble mortality; for those who, like St. Stephen, experience the hatred of the world.
Each Christmas, to all the broken and lonely people in the world, Jesus says: this one’s for you.”
-Paolo Uccello, 1435 (please click on the image for greater detail)
St Stephen Martyr, Protomartyr of Jesus Christ, pray for us sinners!
Love & Merry Christmas,
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP