The Gospel reading for this day is one filled with foreboding and yet tempered with consolation. Being handed over into the hands of the secular powers for early Christians was a terrifying prospect often fraught with perils to life and limb. In the Acts of the Apostles, just such an episode occurs with the stoning of Stephen. Coming the day after we celebrate the Nativity of Christ, the stoning of Stephen completes the earthly life cycle with an example of what it meant to fulfill Christ’s words: “ Whoever endures to the end will be saved.” Mt. 10:22. In Stephen’s declarations of faith, the Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of your Father speaking through you [Stephen].” Mt. 10:20. To be a faithful Catholic and instrument of the Holy Spirit in today’s world requires tremendous strength and tenacity of spirit. In how many ways do we, as devout Christians, experience being “hated by all because of My Name.” Mt. 10: 22 ? It is only through faith in Jesus as our Savior, and attentiveness to the ineffable workings of the Holy Sprit in and through our lives that we can endure to the ends of our journeys. St. Stephen’s example is juxtaposed with Christ’s birth –a light and a seeming darkness—but one replete with faith, grace and redemptive power. Through his witness, Stephen comes into his eternal reward as he cries out to Christ with his last breath.
For centuries, St. Stephen’s Day became a day to assist the poor in an especial way. In the English-speaking world, it became known as “Boxing Day,” and is still celebrated as a festive holiday in many places. But its original meaning of aiding the poor, whether by “boxing” gifts for them—hence the term—or in other tangibly corporal ways such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, or welcoming the stranger, is something that all can do in some capacity. As we exit the season of Advent, with its cold and darkness, and embark upon the luminous season of Christmas in our liturgical cycle, like the Christ Child and St. Stephen, let each pray this day that we continually dedicate ourselves to seeking the grace of the Holy Spirit, and carrying out God’s will confident in His providence and mercy.