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Christmas & St. Stephen
Christian vs. Pagan Joy

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version

The feast of St. Stephen (when it is celebrated) can come as a jolt to Christians celebrating Christmas (or even more if celebrating Santa Claus).  We find ourselves waking up the very next day after Christmas, on December 26, to celebrate the death of the first known martyr for the name of Jesus Christ, Stephen who had been appointed as one of the twelve deacons to be a servant among the newly emerging Christian people (see Acts 6). 

It might seem a rude awakening after Christmas Day.  We might feel that it could have been politely put off a bit longer, maybe, at least, next week.  The Feast of St. Stephen seems to run contrary to the spirit of rejoicing at Christmas.  But, as suggested by one preacher on St. Stephen's Day -- the degree to which we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen is a good sign of the degree to which our celebration of Christmas is truly Christian.   The taking of the Feast of St. Stephen up into the Christmas spirit is one dividing line between Christian and pagan rejoicing.


The Great Dividing Line is this:  Christian rejoicing produces festivities (we party because we feel good), whereas pagan rejoicing is produced by the festivities (pagans typically party in order to feel good). 

Thus for pagans, for rejoicing to be sustained, they must continue the festivities.  Any interruption is an affront to the spirit of rejoicing.  Thus St. Stephen's Day would likely be an affront to the pagan celebration of Christmas -- such as the celebration of Santa Claus rather than the birth of Jesus. 

For Christians, it is quite different.  Christian rejoicing is created by the coming of the Christ, not by the festivities.  The coming of the Christ creates Christian joy; and then Christian joy creates the Christian festivities.  So then, the cessation of the festivities in themselves does not lead to the end of Christian joy and rejoicing.  The cause of it all is still there, i.e., the Christ. 


But there is another reason why St. Stephen's Day can be incorporated into Christmas rejoicing, but not into pagan rejoicing. 

For a man without Christ, a day of death can hardly be a day of festivity -- as Christians refer to the day Jesus died as "Good" Friday.  Yet, St. Stephen's Day is a festival day, not a fasting day, not a day of mourning.  A day of rejoicing. 

It is difficult to see how the rejoicing of those without God can be large and inclusive enough to take up into itself the death of good men.  For pagans, rejoicing is the antithesis of trouble -- getting away from trouble.  The troubles of the world stand at the opposite end of the pole from happiness -- as if to say:  "Forget your troubles, be happy!'  The chief end of festivities is, often, to get away from troubles. 

For Christians, there is an entirely different relationship between rejoicing and trouble.  Instead of  "Forget troubles and be happy!" we have instead, "Face into  your troubles..., and be happy!"  "Work through your despair and loneliness..., to find joy!

That is possible to sustain only in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We weep and mourn when a godly man is killed, but in the end, we remember it as a victory over sin and self, a good man following the way of the Cross. 


Christian joy is rooted in Christ, not in the festivities.  It is big enough to gather in and transform tragedy into victory.  The Feast of St. Stephen is a feast, not a fast.  St. Stephen's Day is a day of rejoicing, not of mourning. 

Only our own inner still unconverted pagan selves makes us view St. Stephen's Day with sadness, perhaps resenting its intrusion into our Christmas festivities.  The Feast of St. Stephen is not about a Christian failure, but about a Christian victory.  Here was a man counted worthy to suffer for Christ, and in some sense, worthy of the suffering of Christ for him.  Here was the fruit of Christ's victory -- to build the Kingdom of Heaven, to win the hearts of men to loyalty even at the cost of our lives. 

It is not for us to stand in fear or disappointment that we might meet Stephen's fate as well -- but rather to rejoice: "Glory be to God!  Stephen's victory can be also our victory!

"And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'"  (Acts 7:60)  Lord do not hate them for this sin.  Lord, I do not hate them for this sin....

Stephen's victory was over his own hate, over his hate of his enemies.  He became willing to die for his enemies, willing to die to reach out to them.  He died praying for them. 

This is Christ's victory in Stephen, and therefore Stephen's victory over himself and his enemies.


One Christmas, many years ago in England, as I passed down the High Street in Oxford, England, I saw a young man with four others handing out leaflets, announcing, among other things:  "A child dies every three seconds somewhere in the world from starvation and related diseases.  To serve as a reminder, we five will fast for four days.  No food, only water."

The five stayed out on the High Street most of the four days, passing out leaflets and talking to people. 

He was not asking other people to go on a hunger strike, he was not asking Christians to stop celebrating Christmas.  I did not know even whether they were Christians. 

But they were asking us to remember while we were celebrating that people were dying, a child every three seconds (about 200 while I am speaking).   They were asking, "What are you going to do about it?"  Perhaps they wondered (as I did) whether they were an affront to the Christmas rejoicing. 

They were not an affront to the Christmas of Jesus.  They were not asking Christians to stop celebrating the birth of Christ.  Festivals ought to be kept.  Rather, they were perhaps asking that it be a Christian rejoicing and festival -- a trouble-facing festival, not a trouble-forgetting festival, a festival about overcoming evil, not running from it. 

Trouble-avoiding rejoicing rebels at the feast of the first Christian martyr, as it might rebel at fasting at Christmas time, or being told to remember those who starve while we feast. 

Festivals are to be kept, Christianity is not  to become a dull dreary business that not even a starving child would want.  Festivals are glimpses of things to come.  Rejoicing that is truly Christian is large enough to gather up, include, and reach out to those in trouble.  Christian festivity is rooted in Christ, and comes from that same spring of the Holy Spirit that will send us out to work with Christ, to be Christ in the harvest fields of humanity -- at any cost to ourselves. 

Christian rejoicing is the fruit of troubles overcome, a sign of hope to others in trouble that their troubles also can be overcome.  On the battle field, we want to hear the troops on our flank shouting joy for victory, not retreating in the face of the enemy to a more safe and comfortable party-time. 

May God have mercy upon us if we substitute trouble-evading festivities for trouble-conquering festivities.  We celebrate Holy Communion which comes first at the cost first of the crucifixion of Christ, and secondly at the cost of the crucifixion of our own sins.  For Christians, Christmas is a sign of heaven, for pagans, (as with Santa Claus) Christmas becomes a substitute for heaven. 

When at a Christmas party, or watching a TV Christmas special -- we might ask ourselves, what has Christ to do with this?   How are the resources spent in this event related to the 600 children who in the next half hour will die of hunger?  The question is not meant to be morbid, it is meant to be realistic in the face of a self-destructing world into which God Himself has invested Himself for our salvation. 

It is meant to direct our thoughts to the as yet unconverted secular or pagan person within our own selves, and to turn our rejoicing into a trouble-facing festivity, asking ourselves, "What has my rejoicing to do with Christ?  What has it to do with those in deep despair, fear, hunger, loneliness?" 

So let us work and pray that our festivals will be rooted in Christ, so that they will no longer be signs of decadence and decay to those in need, but rather beacons of hope and of troubles overcome. 


Grant, O Father in Heaven, that in all our suffering and in all our joy, we may be rooted and grounded in You, and so obtain that triumphant victory of Stephen...   In Jesus' name.   

Audio Version

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Date Posted - 12/26/2010    -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012