The Feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr recorded in scripture. We remember his witness and his stoning before the Christmas dinner leftovers are barely touched.
It's a peculiar and torturous form of execution, stoning. Look it up and you can find different practices over the centuries, but there are a few things worth noting.
It's a collective execution. It's not a single executioner dropping the guillotine, pulling the trigger, opening the trapdoor beneath the noose. There are executioners, a community of them, acting in agreement. Sometimes the judge who set the sentence gets to throw the first stone, sometimes a witness to the crime.
Sometimes this first stone-thrower purposefully uses a small stone that couldn't possible kill on first strike. Wound, sure, but not kill. It's an execution sometimes designed to take a while. In terms of a quick and painless death, it ranks with crucifixion as being among the least humane.
And what did Stephen do to get this condemnation?
He talked back. He spoke up. Really, he just defended himself.
Do some good things, get some recognition, and the powerful will come along and try to tear you down. The powerful will see your popularity as a threat to their power and so they'll turn public opinion against you if they can. They'll lie if they have to.
The writer of Acts takes pains to create parallels between Stephen's arrest and execution and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, but in one matter the stories differ. Stephen speaks up and gives an extended defense of himself.
Not that it mattered.
We observe these saints and martyrs days with some admiration for their courage, witness, and faith. There are numerous women and men throughout the last 2,000 years to admire, both named and unknown. They are worthy of admiration. At the same time, I regret that their lives played out that way and would wish there would be no more. I might hope that I would be so courageous in the face of persecution, but I really wish it not to happen.
We don't get to choose these things. Did Oscar Romero set out to be murdered when he spoke up for the poor? I don't think that's how it works. Still, he spoke up because it was right and true. His death was quicker than Stephen's but the lineage is the same. Replying to power, telling power where it is wrong and misapplied, can and often does get you killed.
We need not be surprised if it comes to our turn.
I've long found it interesting and instructive that we follow the birth of the Incarnate God with a martyr's feast day. It's a tension of celebration of God's humility followed by the cost of it. At our best, we accept this and continue to work of Jesus, inspired, like Stephen, by the Holy Spirit. Occasionally you have a powerful person giving up their power to follow Jesus, but it seems more often they cling to the power, ignoring their shared Image of God, deny the Image of God in others, and serve only their ego and amassed power.
Speaking out has consequences and our frail bodies receive them.
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’
But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. [Acts 7:54-57]