Sermon: St Stephen's Day
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – Amen.
Today is St Stephen's Day ... also known as Boxing Day. No one is quite sure why it is called Boxing Day, though there is plenty of speculation! Some suggest it has something to do with Charity boxes set up in Churches on that day in olden times; others that the well to do made a habit of visiting poor neighbours with presents of food; still others that the nobility, in order to ensure that Christmas Day went smoothly in their own homes, gave the servants the next day off with a nice present to take home with them; and then there is the suggestion that the trades-folk got their Christmas bonuses or 'boxes' for good service all year on that day ... perhaps they waited until after Christmas to make sure they got the choicest foods and wines delivered for their celebrations!
In Ireland, it has never been all that common to call it Boxing Day ... a bit more common was to refer to it as Wren Day, as Hunting the Wren was very popular, especially in country areas ... and no doubt today in many parts of rural Ireland there are people dressed up as 'Wren boys' going round knocking on doors and raising money for charity (or themselves!) as they sing the song that begins: 'The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, on St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze.' Let us only hope that they are not doing what the custom originally called for, which was actually hunting and killing a wren first and then tying it to a pole and parading around with it! The origins of this custom are lost in the mists of time, but it seems to have pagan associations – perhaps something to do with the wren being seen as the bird of winter, and its sacrifice heralded the coming of the spring.
These different names for St Stephen's Day, both secular and pagan, make me think about what different names there might be for St Stephen himself. It is not uncommon to give saints descriptive titles to distinguish them from others with the same name – and there is in fact another St Stephen. He might, for example, be called St Stephen the Apostle. He was not one
of the 12 apostles, but there is a strong likelihood he was was of the 70 (or 72) we read about in Luke 10 who were sent out by our Lord – and of course the word apostle means one who is sent out. We could also call him St Stephen the Deacon; we know from Acts 6 he was one of the seven chosen by the Apostles to assist them in their work and make sure that the Gentile widows of the early church were looked after in the food distribution. In fact, he might even be called St Stephen the First Deacon, because not only does Acts name him first when listing the deacons, it distinguishes him from his fellows by describing him as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.
But it is, in fact, the title 'Protomartyr' that is used to distinguish him from the other Stephen – St Stephen, the first martyr. And we all know the story of that martyrdom. We heard how it
ended in our reading from Acts this morning, with Stephen being stoned to death. Earlier in Acts we are told how his opponents had tried to argue with him; but Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, was too wise for them. So then they brought false witnesses against him and accused this Holy man of blasphemy; Stephen's response to these charges is to remind them all how good God has been to them ... his words enrage the crowd and they drag Stephen out and kill him ...
Why do we celebrate St Stephen's day when we do, the day after Christmas? It seems rather a 'downer' to think about something like this so soon after the joys of Christmas morning, when most of us are still feeling a bit stuffed from our good meal from the day before, and perhaps wondering if there are any of those nice chocolates left or some other tasty treat? Well the tradition of the Church has always been to celebrate the feast day of martyrs around the anniversary of their death. So clearly the tradition was that it was at this time of year that Stephen died. The date that the early Church Fathers calculated as being the day of Christ's birth wasn't worked out until many years after that. So essentially it was by chance that the two days ended up following each other in the Church calendar. It was only an accident that we go from the celebratory liturgical colour of white for the birth of our Lord on Christmas day to the red for the blood of the martyred Stephen on the next.
Only an accident ... or is it one of those happy coincidences that actually make a profound theological point? We celebrate the birth of the Christ child one day and remember the death
of our first martyr the next ... even as we still feeling the warm glow of all that Christmas means ... and I don't just mean the mulled wine and the minced pies and everything else like that, but what it means for humanity that the incarnation took place ... and straight after that we are reminded that this is not just some kind of cheap grace that is on offer ... there is a price to be paid for being a Christian ... few, thank God, are called to pay the price of their life's blood ... but all are called to pay the price of their lives ... of leading a life that is changed utterly by the coming of the Christ Child into the world ... the word martyr means witness ... and we, like Stephen, are called to be martyrs ... witnesses ... to our faith in the one whose birth we celebrated yesterday ... the one to whom we were joined with in our baptisms ...
In the greater scheme of things, it matters little if we are unsure why it is we call Boxing Day Boxing Day ... or why the Wren boys used to tie a dead wren to a pole ... but we must never forget why it is that people like St Stephen died ... he died for us ... so that by his witness the faith that he had might be passed on to others ... might be passed on to us ... and so that we might have the courage to also be witnesses and in so doing, pass to the faith to others also ... Amen.