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Remembering Stephen

The Stoning of St Stephen, 1625 by Rembrandt

And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. - Acts 7:60

The Feast of St Stephen, which falls on 26th of December, is normally overshadowed by Christmas celebrations. I thought I should write a reflection here to help us to better appreciate what the first coming of our Lord has revealed to us.

The commemoration of this Feast on the second day of Christmas can, at times, evoke a sense of dissonance. As one opens the liturgical box on this day, the warm sentiments of Christmas continue to overflow. Few take a moment to reflect on the stark image of a blood-soaked saint meeting a kinetic demise at the hands of an angry crowd.

The red blight on a white Christmas appears to be ill-fitted, not unlike the juxtaposition of the Holy Innocents on the day after. This lesser saint seems to be relegated to obscurity on our church calendar.

However, this was not the case for the Dutch artist Rembrandt. The Stoning of Stephen was the subject of his first signed painting, which he completed in 1625 at the age of 19. He portrayed it in a diagonal divide of serene light and brutish dark zones. A self-portrait is inserted between the kneeling saint and the man holding a large stone. It was suggested that this was because the Bible was for Rembrandt “a kind of diary, an account of moments in his own life.”

We can easily envision ourselves in that scene, akin to his self-portrait — confused and frightened, for 2023 has proven to be another violently charged year, when anger has pounded against the innocent with the modern hail of bullets and munitions. It seems that human hatred and barbarity have not changed much.

Beyond the world’s tumultuous scenes and headlines, the Feast of St. Stephen continues to illuminate the darkness stemming from the untimely loss of friends or loved ones. At the time of my writing, many of us Christians in Singapore are mourning the recent passing of Joseph Chean, who died suddenly at the age of 56. Those in SAMH work also mourned the untimely loss of Steven Ting, our first Centre Director of Simei Care Centre. They continued a long list of saints throughout history whose deaths were untimely and tragic.

Yet somehow, death gives way to life, like a grain of wheat that falls to the ground (John 12:24), even if prematurely. This has been the enduring witness of the Church. Stephen’s tragedy scattered witnessing believers and eventually turned Saul into Paul. As Tertullian would assert centuries later, the blood of martyrs is indeed the seed of the Church.

However, not every tragedy makes sense, even when hindsight is applied. This can easily be a point for reflection on the Holy Innocents. Perhaps these two feasts, so close to each other, cover well the realities of life. When light is snuffed out into darkness, sometimes we can’t shed light on the tragedy, at least not on this side of life.

The death of Stephen should of course move us a little back in history, for it was his Imitatione Christi. While we ponder on the meaning of his early demise, for Stephen it was an honor to walk in Christ’s steps, to die like him.

To die is gain, as St. Paul will put it. Suffering is always more difficult for observers as we struggle with a painful sense of bereavement that we hope will heal with time. We take comfort that Jesus stands at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56) as he welcomes one of his saints who has fallen asleep (Acts 7:60), who will wake up in the glory of his presence.

Many will continue to struggle with the incongruence of “this most wonderful time of the year” in the midst of wars that are still raging. The same holds for those struggling with bereavement, made more difficult by the memories and sentiments that this season will stir.

For them, the Feast of St. Stephen, on the second day, helps convey a more complete message of Christmas.

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