“Good King Wenceslas” is one of the lesser-known Christmas carols and yet one with a beautiful message. In brief, the carol is about a king and his page who set off on a cold winter day to help a less fortunate individual. They embarked on their compassionate journey, the story goes, “on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.”
The Feast of Stephen is one of the lesser-known Christian holidays, at least among many in the West. The day after Christmas on the Christian calendar is known as the Feast of Stephen or Saint Stephen’s Day. What makes this particular holiday so interesting is that one day after we celebrate the birth of Jesus we commemorate the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
The seventh chapter of Acts records the account of Stephen’s death at the hands of an angry mob. Stephen was one of the original seven deacons who helped the apostles meet the needs of widows in the early church. He is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” and also “full of grace and power.” He was stoned after preaching a powerful sermon about Jesus.
Just before he died, Stephen “gazed into heaven” and saw “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” The Bible makes it clear that after completing His redemptive work and returning to heaven, Jesus “sat” at the right hand of the heavenly Father. However, when Stephen died, Luke recorded that Jesus was “standing.” Interesting! Perhaps Jesus stood to welcome Stephen, the first of many martyrs, home.
Martyrdom is not a thing of the past. Since the time of Stephen, many faithful Christ-followers have paid the ultimate price for their devotion to Christ. More Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries combined.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and the more recently published Jesus Freaks record the moving accounts of Christian martyrs — individuals of whom the world was not worthy. By some estimates, 100 million Christians around the world are currently suffering some form of persecution for their faith — including abuse, intimidation, threats, imprisonment, hostilities, and death.
The reality is that while we live our lives in relative safety, many Christ-followers in the world today will never know what it means to live a single day without the threat of violence for no other reason than they are Christ-followers. The task of reaching the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ will not be accomplished without the blood of the martyrs. History illustrates, however, that no act of persecution or terror against Christ-followers will halt the advance of the gospel.
And so, on this day after Christmas, may we remember, reflect, and pray for all those who are suffering some form of persecution, loss, and abuse at the hands of those who are hostile to the good news of Jesus Christ. And just as Stephen prayed for those who persecuted him, let’s pray for those who mistakenly believe that their acts of hatred, terror, and violence will frustrate the purposes of God. God’s purposes will ultimately prevail.