Meaning of Christmas: Even martyrdom is a family affair

The cosy nature of this season's celebrations is not some secular deviation from a true theology. For blood is a bond, as well as a price to be paid
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The Independent Online
FOR AS long as I can remember, Christmas Day and Boxing Day have been cosy days. In the little Yorkshire village where I was brought up the Methodist Chapel was the only place of worship, and in those days, in common with most such chapels, there was no service on Christmas Day. So there was not even the obligation of attending a service to drive us out of the family home. We ate together and afterwards sang carols in four-part harmony around the piano in the sitting room. My favourite carol, then as now, was "Christians Awake", by the 18th-century poet and hymnist John Byrom, whose final verse begins:

Then may we hope, the angelic hosts


To sing, redeemed, a glad triumphal


On these two days of the year the warmth of family excluded almost anything else.

It was while I was still at school that I began to wonder whether it was quite proper that as a Christian I should mark the Incarnation of the Son of God in such an indulgent sort of way. I read T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, where, in his Christmas Day sermon, the Archbishop talks about celebrating, in the Mass, the birth and death of Jesus on the same day. If this baby in Bethlehem was born to die, then perhaps Christmas was not the time to feel cosy after all. Of course, by the time Christmas Day and Boxing Day came round, such mid-year scruples were forgotten and I enjoyed the days as ever.

The next serious challenge came from the radical preachers of the Sixties. They told us very strongly that there was nothing nice about the birth of Jesus. The child was born out of wedlock, no one wanted the hapless parents, the manger was a stinking hole round the back and the shepherds were a rotten bunch of outcasts, that is, if you believed any of it anyway. Perhaps the proper way to celebrate Christmas was in sackcloth and ashes, not in the comfort of a family party.

Even so, there seemed no reason, as a teenager, to have any qualms about the indulgence on Boxing Day however. There was nothing religious about that to disturb my equilibrium. Until, that is, I took an interest in Lectionaries and discovered that Boxing Day is the Feast of St Stephen. What perverse thinking could have led those early Christians to celebrate the stoning of the first Christian martyr the day after celebrating the birth of his Lord? Stephen had been brought before the Sanhedrin on a trumped-up charge of speaking against Moses and against God. He does his cause little good by accusing the authorities of being "stubborn, with heathen hearts, and deaf to God's message". Then, to cap it all, he tells the Council, "Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right-hand side of God." In their anger they proceed to butcher him by stoning.

Initially I supposed that the placing of the celebration of St Stephen's Day the day after Christmas was a historical coincidence. But, of course, this is not the case. The commemoration of the death of the first martyr is not a sort of minor Good Friday which the lectionary has slotted into a conveniently quiet day. And its emphasis is not on the "suffering" of martyrdom. It is true that the prayer of the dying Stephen, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them", echoes the prayer of Jesus upon the Cross but the emphasis of today's liturgy is of that vision of Stephen's and his prayer, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." This is the celebration of one who arrived at the ultimate home wearing the martyr's crown and who rests welcomed in his divine Father's arms. Compare this with the interweaving of salvation and rejoicing in that Byrom carol and one sees a clear link between Christmas and the feast of St Stephen.

The Christian apologists, who emphasise the harsh, even cruel, side to the Bethlehem story, have not got it wrong. It is about God struggling to find a place in a harsh world that has little time or space for Him. But at the end of the day the baby did find warmth, comfort and a family to support him, otherwise he would never have survived. Which is why it is, indeed, a fitting tradition to mark Christmas Day with a family celebration.

St Stephen's Day celebrates a final family reunion, the martyred Stephen with God the Father and his risen Lord. Christmas Day and Boxing Day, the Birth of our Lord and the garlanding (stephanos) of the first martyr, are family days. To say this is not a theological conceit. As anyone who, at this time of year, is involved in ministering to the elderly will tell you, the greatest, perhaps the only, joy which the season brings to many lonely people is the treasured memories of Christmases gone by, cheered by the recollection of loved ones now dead. The only thing that many have to look forward to is that final family feast of which St Stephen's Day speaks. Just as the Eucharist is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and a sacrament on the way to it, so our Christmas Day and Boxing Day indulgence may yet prove to be a foretaste of a greater family reunion.

For many, and certainly for me, knowing that is a help and comfort on the way.

The Rev Bruce Deakin is a Methodist minister in Haydock, Merseyside