Thoughts on a Queer Christmas: The Feast of Stephen
Each year, I’m taken with the arrangement of the church calendar, that the First Day of Christmas, we remember and celebrate the Incarnation of God, followed by the the Second Day of Christmas (Dec 26), the Feast of Stephen, the first Christian to be martyred for his faith in scripture.
It’s as if to say, here is God in the flesh, and here is just how fragile flesh is.
But perhaps I get ahead of myself.
I just reread the account of Stephen in Acts 6-7. It’s a short time to get to know him and what we know of him is mostly short phrases. He was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” and also “full of grace and power, [and] did great wonders and signs among the people.” As with Jesus and the prophets before him, this seldom goes over well the religious leaders.
Most of what we know about Stephen is in a long speech he gives before a Jewish council, and what he tells us is that he knows his scripture. He knows the history of the Hebrew faith to that point, and he highlights the way that all the patriarchs were denied their authority along the way, and how Kings David and Solomon decided to move God from a tent into a temple, but that despite such a great house, God does live indoors. In so doing, Stephen indicts the council as being part of the tradition that endlessly works to limit God.
As I say, this does not go well for Stephen. According to the law, he is dragged outside the city as a blasphemer and stoned to death. Echoing Jesus on the cross, Stephen remains secure in faith and prays for the ones who stone him.
As a gay man, I read this story with a modern eye to where the religious authorities and councils continue to learn the scriptures but fail to see the wideness of God’s mercy. We who are LGB or T and have heard the call of Christ have stood before similar authorities and councils, have asserted our faithfulness, have shown ourselves in the history of salvation, and we have been met with violence.
This call to follow Jesus is not something to be taken lightly, neither is it something to be received with fear. Stephen showed us that as well. The call to follow Jesus is the call to enter the Beloved Community, the Body of Christ, where we are not ourselves alone, but part of something much bigger than we ourselves could ever be.
Can it be scary? Yes. We probably all have stories of holding back a prophetic word for fear of persecution. Sometimes it means letting go of old ideas we might have had about ourselves and the world within which we would move. There may be grief. There may be sadness, hunger, want.
But also love. Remember always the love of this life in Christ. Rejected, condemned, and shamed, we know a Love that is greater than all that and in fact we proclaim it is a Love that casts out fear.
What’s at stake is this: The Good News that all are welcome in the Household of God, which is not in any one house made by human hands and ingenuity, but lives among us, sanctifying our flesh by taking on that same flesh. What’s at stake is our freedom, our forgiveness, our redemption, our very abundant lives.
NEIL ELLIS ORTS is an author, playwright, and freelance writer, interested in the arts, religion, where those intersect, and where they don’t. He has a BFA in theater (Texas State University), an M.Div, (Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest), and an MA in interdisciplinary arts (Columbia College Chicago).
He’s written for OutSmart Magazine, Dance Studio Life, Dance Source Houston, The Christian Century, Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and Living Lutheran. His novella, Cary and John, is available at parsonsporch.com or Amazon.com.