Today is the Feast of Stephen as in “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.” (It’s amazing how many things make sense once you start keeping the Christian Year.)
The story of Stephen’s martyrdom is told in Acts 7. As Stephen is dying he looks up and sees a vision of Jesus standing beside the Father (v 55). The image of Jesus standing rather than sitting at the right hand of God is, as far as I know, unique in the New Testament. In other heavenly visions and in the Creed, Jesus sits. Watching the violent death of one his own, Christ stands. Does he stand in sympathy, in righteous anger, in honor? I don’t know. Nevertheless, the image beheld by Stephen is transfixing.
This distinction is noted in the collect for today: We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
O King of the Gentiles, and their Desire, the Corner-stone, Who made both one: Come and save man, whom You have formed out of the dust of the earth.
O Day Spring, Brightness of Light everlasting, and Sun of Righteousness: Come and enlighten him that sits darkness and the shadow of death.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel; that opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens: Come and bring the prisoner out of the prison-house, and him that sits in darkness and the shadow of death.
It seems strange to me, an American, that bishops of the Church of England are automatically enrolled in the House of Lords. Surely collecting large bribes (not so cleverly disguised as campaign contributions) while standing for election before a vastly uninformed electorate is a better way to choose members of a legislature.
Anyway, in his role as a member of the House of Lords, N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, addressed the upper chamber concerning the current government bailout corporate welfare schemes and the neglect of debt relief to poor nations. As usual, the Lord Bishop nails it:
Now, my Lords, whenever I, and others, have spoken about these things [debt relief] in the past, we have faced a chorus of excuses telling us that we don’t understand how the world works, that people who borrow money must learn that they have to pay it back, that the borrowers were wicked or irresponsible or incompetent, and that any debt relief will only be siphoned off to fund yet more extravagance on the part of the few. But recent events have blown this excuse clean out of the water. Governments, including our own, are bailing out banks, and at least one bank is being refloated in such a way as to continue unchecked with large bonuses and shareholder payouts. The American government is bailing out car manufacturers with loans taken from funds allocated for ecologically significant design improvements. The very rich are doing for the very rich what they have refused to do for the very poor.
It reminded me: last Sunday some friends and I gathered together for our annual reading of A Christmas Carol. When Scrooge offers to Jacob Marley’s ghost the excuse that Marley wasn’t such a bad man in life because Marley was a keen business man, the ghost replys, “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
These last few days of Advent (or even Christmastime itself) would be a good time for Christians to write their legislators and urge them to enact debt relief for developing nations.
O Root of Jesse, which stands for an ensign of the people, at which kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the Gentiles seek: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.
O Adonai and Leader of the house of Israel, who appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the Law in Sinai: Come and deliver us with an outstretched arm.