A Bittersweet Birth

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Illustration by Frank Kacmarcik, OblSB, Saint John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Over the centuries, the liturgical year has grown into a living commemoration of salvation history. The cycle begins in Advent as we participate in humankind’s longing for the Messiah, a longing fulfilled at Christmas. We then move through Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time again, and then back to Advent. Thus, Christians march in one grand procession from the incarnation to the resurrection, through Pentecost, and into the Eschaton, punctuated by preparation periods for Christ’s birth (Advent) and his passion, death, and resurrection (Lent).  

The Christmas Octave offers some of the liturgical year’s greatest contrasts and emotional swings—so much so that one could be forgiven in thinking that somehow the feasts of this week escaped the correcting eye of a liturgist. Quite the contrary. This Christmas Octave is considered one extended Christmas Day. It serves to prepare us for the Christian life and readies us for the upset, clash, and clang ignited by the Lord God, who through the cooperation of a young woman, deigned to take on human flesh. Seen in this light, Christmas Week has a logic in the way it unfolds, an upsetting logic to be sure, but a logic all the same.  

An ancient Christian saying states, “the wood of the crib becomes the wood of the cross.” This metaphor is apt. Despite the draw that some popular piety may have on our sentiments, the focus of Christmas devotion is not the cute baby asleep in the hay; it is the son of God in human flesh, lying exposed to a graced but sinful world, facing all the vulnerability of human existence. And the child’s mission is to further fill the world with grace, even as that world eventually puts him to death.  

Luke constructs his two-volume work, the Gospel and Acts, as a compendium of salvation history, beginning with Abraham (Luke 1:73) and running down to the conversion of the Roman Empire (Acts 28:28-31). The Evangelist also emphasizes that everything Jesus encounters in his life, disciples will also encounter in theirs, including a martyr’s death. Which brings us to St. Stephen.  

Stephen is called the protomartyr, that is, the very first and therefore the exemplar. The charges against him are similar to those laid against Jesus. He even stands judged by the high priest. Stephen mounts his defense with a recital of God’s great acts in Jewish history, beginning with Abraham (Acts 7:1-60). When he reaches the point where Solomon builds the temple, he interjects that he sees the Son of Man descending on clouds—a reference to Daniel 7—thereby asserting Christ’s lordship over creation and matching the words Jesus speaks to the high priest at his trial (Acts 7:48-49; Luke 22:69). At that point, the people begin to stone him.  

St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, ushers in the bitter half of the Christian’s bittersweet life. The order of the following days continues to show this interplay of light and darkness: John the Evangelist, with his magnificent gospel prologue; Holy Innocents, with their merciless death at the hands of a wrathful king; Thomas Becket, with his sacrilegious murder in the cathedral; and the Holy Family of refugees, with their flight from the atrocity that engulfed the Holy Innocents. Finally, the Octave closes with the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, who cooperated with God’s initiative at the Annunciation—so in the end, the grace of the loving Creator wins.  

© Liturgical Press.

Fr. Michael Patella  

Michael Patella, OSB, is professor of theology at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary and rector of St. John’s Seminary. He is author of Angels and Demons: A Christian Primer of the Spiritual World and Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of The Saint John’s Bible. 

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