Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas, St. Stephen's Day, and Holy Innocents

Hot on the heels of Christmas are the Holy days of St. Stephen (December 26) and Holy Innocents (December 28). It seems most peculiar that the Church (Roman, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican) would have such ‘downer’ days after the great feast of the Nativity. As Anglicans we need to look at the Collects of the Church for all three of these special days if we are to understand why they follow the joyous ‘high of Christmas.’ Further to this, the placement of St. Stephen’s and Holy Innocents reveals a clear understanding of Anglican spirituality that calls us to deeper communion with the LORD through worship and personal transformation.
St. Stephen was a young man called into the diaconate of the Church to help solve some apparent injustices in the support being offered to the widows of the Church. He was bold of speech among the people of Jerusalem and this caused a riot leading to his being stoned to death. During his last few breaths he asked the LORD to forgive his enemies. Herein lies the intent of the Collect of St. Stephen’s Day

GRANT, O Lord, that in all our sufferings
here upon earth, for the testimony of thy
truth, we may stedfastly look up to heaven, and
by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed;
and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, may learn
to love and bless our persecutors, by the example
of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed
for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who
standest at the right hand of God to succour all
those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and
Advocate. Amen.

In today’s culture we have romanticized the Christmas Story, even relegated it to a myth status, that has reduced the Incarnation to a warm fuzzy story meant to invoke pleasant happy, feelings. This is hardly the sentiment revealed in the Scriptures, nor should it ever become the sentiment of our Christian witness, personally, and corporately in the liturgy of our worship. The Nativity is not just about the Second person of the Trinity taking on human flesh in order to die on the Cross for our sins. It also is the LORD’s example to us, so that we might take up God’s Spirit to die to the sinful desires in ourselves. Let us not belittle the courageous humility of Christ needed to take on human flesh. Nor should we belittle the courageous humility we will need to take on the fullness of the Holy Spirit to live like Christ. As HE is the LIGHT of the World, we are called to be lights in the world.
This is found in the important words of the Collect of St. Stephen’s Day. It is about example and humility. Stephen looked up to heaven as we too should. Stephen loved his persecutors by praying for them and forgiving them, as we too should. And finally to look to Christ to provide holy comfort (succour) to those, and we, who will suffer to live the example of Christ, as Stephen did.
Again the tragic story of the death of the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod’s henchmen is there to remind us of the reality of the evil in the world and how we are to respond to it. The collect says

O ALMIGHTY God, who out of the mouths
of babes and sucklings hast ordained
strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by
their deaths: Mortify and kill all vices in us,
and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the
innocency of our lives, and constancy of our
faith, even unto death, we may glorify thy holy
Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Here we affirm nobody is lost in God’s purpose to be glorified in and through us: from innocent babies to the poorest of the poor, to kings and rulers. As Christ glorified the Father in the humility of His death so too did the Innocents in their tragic deaths. Again the example is there to draw us to a deeper walk of faith. Herod’s evilness calls us to beware of ‘all vices in us,’ for only by grace and mercy do we walk in holiness and righteousness. Evil is never far from the human heart, even our own hearts. Finally as Christ calls us to be little children in order to enter the Kingdom of God, so to we look to live in innocency of life (holiness), and to be consistently faithful unto death.
Now we see the connect to the Christmas Collect,

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us thy only
Begotten Son to take our nature upon him,
and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin:
Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy
children by adoption and grace, may daily be
renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same
our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth
with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God,
world without end. Amen.

In order to live regenerate transformed lives, lives that reflect the life of Christ, we’ll need daily renewal in the Holy Spirit, and the witness of Scripture as evidenced in the life of Stephen, and the Innocents, and predominantly the witness of the humility of Christ helps us in this change.
There is nothing light and trite about the spirituality of this Scriptural and Anglican approach. It is challenging, even daunting, to surrender to the ways of Christ. It is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. But it is glory and honour and Life, for it is God’s holy will for us all. There is a desire in all of us to want worship that makes God interesting to us, but in worship we are called to make ourselves interesting to God. This is the focus of classical Anglican spirituality, a spirituality that we must never lose for it is of God, and it is Scriptural. It is a spiritual approach bent on our regeneration and transformation so that we might glorify God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


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