From the Book of Acts:
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 7:59-8:3 (NRSV) – December 26, 2012.)
On the second day of Christmas the church remembers a murder, the martyrdom of Stephen, and our Daily Office lectionary won’t let us forget it. Often the readings of the Daily Office seem to have nothing to do with the season and they seldom are tied to a saint’s commemoration, but today the morning and evening readings tell the whole story in gruesome detail.
Stephen is revered as the church’s first martyr. The word martyr in Greek merely means “witness” but the church (and thus our modern society) uses it to mean someone who has suffered and died for their faith. The Celtic church would identify three kinds of martyrdom, only one of which involves death, so-called “red martyrdom.” The others were “green martyrdom” and “white martyrdom.”
The green martyrs were those who left ordinary society for the life of a hermit on the mountaintops or islands of Ireland following the example of the Egyptian anchorites. Eventually, they merged their individual dwellings into the monastic communities which dominated the Irish church from the 6th through 9th Centuries.
White martyrs went further. They left Ireland altogether as missionaries. The first of these were Columba and his followers who founded the monastery at Iona. Others following their example went into northern Europe and beyond.
The 2nd Century theologian Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This is usually understood to mean that through the sacrifice of their lives the “red martyrs” led others to conversion and, on this Feast of Stephen, we see the great example of that in the eventual conversion of Saul, the zealous Jewish persecutor of the church, into Paul, the equally-zealous Christian missionary. But it seems to me that the blood of the green martyrs and the white martyrs, which was not spilled but continued to course through their veins during a life of prayer and service, was equally effective in the conversion of others.
It is not so much the blood of the martyrs but, as the original Greek word says, the witness of the martyrs, the example and testimony of the martyrs of all sorts, red, green, and white, that nurtures the growth of the church. On this second day of Christmas, we should remember that, in some sense, we are all called to martyrdom; we are all called to witness to our faith in the Child whose birth we continue to celebrate.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.