[T]he Son of God, . . . instead of accepting the sacrifice of one of his creatures to satisfy his justice or support his dignity, gave himself utterly unto them, and therein to the Father by doing his lovely will; [and] suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection.
One of the bracing features of the calendar for the Feast of Christmas is how quickly murderous opposition and mourning arrive on the heels of Christmas Day’s “Gloria in the highest, peace, Alleluia!”
Day two of the great Christmas Feast is St Stephen’s Feast Day. Just when we were starting to appreciate the homely and quiet beauty of the manger scene, the Church calendar casts us forward some thirty-odd years to the ordination of Stephen as Deacon in the Church in Jerusalem. He was ordained for the unobjectionable purpose of serving the poor Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem their daily distributions.
In the course of making those distributions, though, Stephen did some pretty extraordinary things. Evidently these were enough for some of the other Greek-speaking Jews in the area to notice and hate what he was doing, and to rise up to accuse him of blasphemy. Specifically, they accused Stephen of speaking against the Temple and against Moses. He was brought before the Council to stand trial. For his defense Stephen gave orthodox accounts of the lives of Israel’s patriarchs (focusing specifically on Abraham and Joseph), of Moses, and of the significance of the Temple. Stephen concluded, though, with a counter-charge: he called his accusers “stiff-necked” people, “uncimcumcised in heart and ears,” the latest brood in a long, dreary line of lawless prophet-killers. The result was predictably hideous: they hauled Stephen out and stoned him. But the awful scene was beatified in that Stephen died interceding for his murderers, praying that his blood would not be held against them.
This happened within ten miles or so of Bethlehem, and only thirty-five years, give or take, of Jesus’s birth. Conceptually, though, the distance between the Nativity and Stephen’s stoning was much shorter:
Simeon blessed [Mary and Joseph] and said to Mary [Jesus’s] mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
In Jesus, Simeon detected that a shoot had sprung from the stump of Jesse — in other words, that the true Davidic King had come to a land sick with the reigns of usurpers like Herod, and occupying governors like Pilate. And Simeon rightly foresaw, when that shoot from the stump of Jesse was yet a holy infant, tender and mild, that His appearing would provoke opposition and cause division. Whatever the peace of Jesus was at His birth, it was not, as Dorothy Sayers once said, the peace of amiable indifference. His presence under swaddling cloths in the manger was nothing less momentous than the beginning of Heaven’s decisive invasion of the world. Pushback would come swift and violent.
The theme of the first day of Christmas (and the overarching theme of the whole feast) is the Creator God improbably joining together His glory and our flesh and blood. After the Fall, this is a sign that provokes opposition by its nature. The ultimate collision between the Sign as a full-grown Man and His enemies would produce another startling conjunction: His suffering at the hands of lawless enemies, and His prayers for those enemies.
What God had joined together, St Stephen did not put asunder.
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 George MacDonald, The Consuming Fire, in Unspoken Sermons, Series One (1867).
 The account of Stephen’s ordination, arrest, apologia, and martyrdom are found in Acts 6-7.
 St Luke 2:34-35 (ESV).
 Isaiah 11:1.
 Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? in Letters to a Diminished Church 55 (Thomas Nelson 2004).