26 December – The gift God gives

Jesus said, ‘Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’
(Matthew 10.17-22)

Boxing Day was traditionally the day when servants and tradesmen received their gifts from their employers. With delight and some anticipation they would open their ‘Christmas Box’ to see how generous their overlord was. I hope you got what you wanted when you opened your presents yesterday. There is something wonderful about looking at all those gifts under the tree, their contents hidden from us by cardboard and wrapping paper. As children we would attempt a sneaky feel, a shake to see if we could identify what awaited us, my sister on lookout for our parents, me having a quick examination of what lay there, waiting for us, waiting for Christmas Day.

They are of course nothing in comparison with the real gift of Christmas, the child lying in the manger, the one for whose birth we have been Bethlehem bound. In his poem ‘Christmas’ John Betjeman, which I quoted yesterday, compares the gifts we give with the gift God gives. We need reminding.

No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

But Boxing Day holds a surprise. We might imagine that we would spend the day thinking more about what had happened the day before in that Bethlehem stable, reflect a little more on those others who, like us, were Bethlehem bound – angels and shepherds – and there are others still on the road. But no. Instead today in the calendar of the church is the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr of the church.

The stoning of St Stephen

The stoning of St Stephen

In his play, ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ T S Eliot picks up on this fact in the sermon that Archbishop Thomas Becket preaches as the interlude in the action of the play. The Archbishop is preaching on Christmas morning in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 and he says this

‘Not only do we at the Feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord’s birth and His death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of his first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ?’

It was hard to know what had been wrapped up for us in those gifts under the tree and it was only by taking off the wrappings that we were able to discover. Was it something we wanted, or something we didn’t? Was it something we had hoped for or not? Was it a surprise or expected?

We have seen many babies and looking into the crib with Mary and Joseph we see another baby, crying, needing to be fed, wanting to be held. Just a baby. But we need to look deeper. The force of Becket’s sermon in the play is that you can’t separate Christ’s birth from his death, that the two go together.

Taking the child from the crib into our arms has consequences. The gift of the child to the world is free – Christ is gift to the world, freely given for love, just as grace is that unearned free gift of God in our lives. But loving the gift has consequences.

One of the horrors of this year has been to witness the brutal attacks on Christians in Iraq and Syria by the forces of the so called Islamic State. We heard how the initial Arabic letter for Nasrani, the name given to Christians in those countries, was painted on the homes of Christians so that they could be identified for slaughter, for martyrdom. I heard of one family, all together in their home, killed by a group of IS soldiers. And why? Because they dared to hold the gift to themselves, the Christ child, dared to be known as followers of Jesus. Like St Stephen they paid with their lives for the one who came to bring us life.

The Arabic letter that has become the martyr's mark

The Arabic letter that has become the martyr’s mark

The story of St Stephen’s martyrdom is in the Acts of the Apostles, not the Gospels. You can read it in Acts 7.54-end. But the full story can be read in the whole of Acts 6 and 7. It is worth reading for the amazing and courageous speech that Stephen makes before the Council. But just before the speech begins, as the members of the Council were looking at Stephen it says this

And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6.15)

Bethlehem was surrounded by angels bringing the message of Good News, that the Saviour had been born. There were still angels sharing that same Good News in Jerusalem and there are still angels doing it now, and with their lives.

Loving God,
as I accept your gift
as I hold the Christ
may I be ready to be a witness
to the one who gives us life.
Amen.

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