The second line of the Christmas carol slips past us. We hear “Good King Wenceslas looked out…” But what about the next bit, “…on the Feast of Stephen?” What’s that about?
December 26th is St. Stephen’s Day—the Feast of Stephen—long an important celebration in the Christian calendar and now largely ignored. It’s time to bring it back.
Stephen was the first Christian martyr, the protomartyr, stoned to death in the years of persecution that followed the death of Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters Six to Eight, we learn that Stephen was “a man full of faith,” appointed to oversee the care of neglected widows. Stephen took on the established authorities, corrupt in deed and belief, and they could not refute his arguments.
So, in timeless human fashion, the powers-that-were bribed witnesses against him. At the climax of his trial, knowing he was doomed, Stephen declared, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.”
Out came the rocks.
What has this to do with us, as the Year of Our Lord 2017 approaches? To believing Christians, the answer might be “Everything.”
The 2,000-year-old Middle-Eastern Christian civilization that began in the days of St. Stephen lies in ruins, persecuted as never before. As the Obama administration averted its self-righteous gaze, a religious genocide already underway accelerated across the region. Stubborn and dogmatic, the administration refused to acknowledge the problem of Christian refugees—those who’d survived the kidnappings, tortures, rapes, massacres and broad religious cleansing—even to the extent of labeling those who wished to help Christians as bigots.
In Obama’s global village, there’s no room at the inn for Christian refugees. There’s not even a stable.
We’ve watched as a great religious civilization nears extermination. For millennia, through good and horrid times, the three great monotheist religions of the Middle East rubbed along together (with varying levels of friction). Then, in the lifetime of many of this column’s readers, the Jews were driven out. Next came the turn of the Christians, as well as a number of minority faiths. Thanks to extremist Islam.
In the Middle Ages, the majority of Christians lived in the east. The doctrines of the faith were refined in Asia Minor, Palestine and North Africa. The greatest monuments of Christianity’s first thousand years all stood—a few still stand—in lands where Christians long have been persecuted and are now massacred.
Now the Christians are gone, their churches, monasteries and homes in ruins.
This is a new age of martyrs. It’s a time when those who believe in the transcendent generosity of Christ are driven from their homes to suffer exile. It’s an age of blood spilled at a ravaged cross.
Even Bethlehem, within living memory a majority-Christian city, has driven out the followers of Jesus until perhaps a dwindling eighth of the population is Christian.
Where are the campus demonstrations against the torture, rape and murder, the dispossession and massacre of Christians? Where is the outrage in the media? Where are the modern Pharisees we call “public intellectuals.” Where are the consciences in our can’t-be-bothered government?
Those Christians who survive the new barbarians become refugees with nowhere to go. Assigned to “all-faith” asylum homes in Europe, they’re tormented, beaten and threatened by violent migrants. Nor can they go elsewhere in the Middle East.
Yet, we in the United States bar the door against them—in the name of religious tolerance, of all things. One day, we will be as ashamed of our denial of Christian refugees as deeply as we are shamed by our rejection of Jewish refugees from the Nazis.
In this new age of martyrdom, a time when forces such as the Islamic State inflict torments on Christian captives to rival the tortures endured by the early saints, it’s time to revive St. Stephen’s Day to honor the countless martyrs our leaders ignore.
This is not meant as a call for religious division. But in this age of shouting cults and fanaticism, a quiet consideration of Christian ordeals deserves at least one day of our pampered lives.
Wenceslas, too, became a saint—more or less by popular demand. He spread the faith among his pagan subjects, only to be murdered by his brother. In the Victorian-era carol, he’s a king (the historical figure was a duke) who spies a poor man gathering twigs for a fire on the Feast of Stephen--a peasant who will have no feast that day. And the king sets off in the snow on a personal relief mission, followed by one page, the two of them bearing food and wine and pine logs. That particular event may not have occurred, but the symbolism of the gesture should stir us.
For that matter, mark the words of the other old carols, too.
And when you serve up your holiday leftovers on Monday, declare it the Feast of Stephen. Remember those who are martyred as you eat, the tens of thousands of Stephens whom we ignore.