“Behold I see the heavens opened, and the son of man standing on the right hand of God.” Acts 7:56
This time in the liturgical Calendar is always quite packed, and especially this year where Christmas falls so close to the weekend, and we get to celebrate these wonderful feasts together. In fact, we do not really know why St. Stephen follows Christmas, and originally, it was probably not part of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Likewise with the feast of St. John. Many calendars filled the days after Christmas with the great Apostles, and so John was put on Dec. 27, to mark his importance to the witness of Jesus Christ. Over time, both of these feasts were woven into the celebration of the nativity, and they actually provide us with good sources of meditation upon the nativity itself. Today, I want to briefly add a couple of remarks about both of these saints and what they have to teach us about the birth of Jesus.
In Advent we focused on God becoming man–now during the Twelve Days of Christmas with the celebration of these feasts, we are focusing on man becoming God! We have seen that Christ has descended and was born in a manger, now we learn about the ascent of man back to God. But what do we mean about man becoming divine?
Of course, I do not mean that we become the Almighty God and replace him or somehow gain equal status. That would be ridiculous because we are finite and created. When I say that this season focuses on man becoming God, I mean that we truly become God’s adopted sons and daughters. When the second person of the Trinity became incarnate, meaning when he took on flesh, he joined his divinity with our humanity. Therefore, when we join Christ, our humanity becomes joined with his which is unified with His divinity. Therefore, as humans, we get to enjoy the divine life, which means that we get to enjoy divine Truth and divine Love. Let us turn to St. Stephen first to see what this looks like.
St. Stephen was murdered because he was actually defending the hypostatic union–that Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God. Both natures were united in His person. He did not know that term, but because he held to the truth that Jesus was God, he lived out this truth in a way. You see, the ruling and zealous Jews in Jerusalem at that time denied that Jesus Christ was the son of God and especially denied that he ascended in His body and sat at the right hand of God. St. Stephen boldly taught the truths of our faith and only received suffering as a result. But his suffering was turned into glory in a way beyond human imagination–beyond natural human ability. Despite being stoned, St. Stephen prayed for his enemies, just as Jesus did at his crucifixion. This is divine love, and St. Stephen participated in that divine love during his life here on earth. He was helped by Jesus Christ because he was part of His body–as our Collect says:
Grant O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those who suffer for thee, our only mediator and advocate.
St. Stephen was able to join that divine love because he was truly joined to divinity at his baptism.
The second great example we have comes from the Apostle John. And talk about divine love! This is the Apostle who was especially close to Jesus while he walked on earth. Who laid his head on his breast at the Last Supper, who was entrusted to take care of Jesus’ mother, and who revealed to us the true divinity of Christ in clear light in His Gospel. Because he understood the Truth of Jesus, he also lived out his life in a certain way. St. John had received persecution like St. Stephen, but was not martyred. Instead, St. John was exiled to Patmos where he probably wrote the Gospel, epistles, and Revelation. In iconography, the four Gospel writers are depicted by animals, and St. John is appropriately the eagle for his writing soars into the heavenly realm, not just literally with his visions, but also his comprehension of divine truth and love.
As St. Stephen provides a great example for us during persecution, St. John provides us with the encouragement to walk in divine light even now. He writes in chapter one of his first epistle:
“These things we write unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
Notice that St. John urges his readers to walk in the light as God is in the light–meaning that we are to take on divine attributes now! As we are joined to Christ and are cleansed and freed from our sin, then we can walk as Christ walks. That is the beauty of our life, and that is what it means when we say that man becomes God. Jesus Christ became man, was born in a manger and laid in a feed trough so that we, desperately lost and wounded by sin might live like him. Let us celebrate this Christmas season by giving Jesus what he desires most, our own lives. Like Saints John and Stephen, give your life to Jesus completely and let his divine love live in you. Then we may also live day to day with Christ as our vision and say with St. Stephen: “Behold I see the heavens opened, and the son of man standing on the right hand of God.”