Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59; Matthew 10:17-22
Of all the customs that have ever arisen during the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, perhaps the strangest occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. Beginning on the Feast of Stephen, young boys in Southern France, Great Britain, and Ireland would hunt and kill a bird; specifically a wren, then display it and parade it around town asking for money.
It’s hard to understand how this bizarre ritual started or why it was done, let alone how it could continue for two hundred years, but a good dose of superstition was probably involved. In certain places the wren was considered symbolic of priesthood or prophecy. An old Irish word for wren meant “bird of prophecy,” and some Irishmen associated it with a type of pagan priest who foretold the future. Although we have no idea what the poor little bird was supposedly prophesying, one thing is known: The wrens’ song is very loud; allegedly ten times louder than other birds their size. Who knows; perhaps the boys thought they were doing their town a favor.
In the reading from Acts, the members of the local synagogue may have thought that they were doing their town a favor when they silenced Stephen. But his was the song of the Dove, not the wren. Luke says that Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit; as Jesus made clear in the gospel, His wisdom cannot be overcome. Like Jesus, the only way to try and silence Stephen was to kill him; it is no coincidence that Luke patterns Stephen’s passion and death after that of Christ. For example, in Luke Jesus tells the Sanhedrin before he dies that from this time on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God (Luke 2:69); here, Luke has Stephen say Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56).
Like the mysterious sacrifice of the wren, this may leave us curious. Why does the Church take the first day after Christmas to remember the first martyr? The answer lies precisely in the similarity of Stephen’s passion and death to Christ’s. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus; the same Jesus who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). It was in the giving of his life that Christ most profoundly served, for only by the perfect sacrifice of himself could his disciples have hope of being born into eternal life. Thus with Stephen; he could most greatly honor his Savior by imitating him in life even if that meant dying, that he might be born into eternal life with Christ.
It might seem odd for the Church to see death as the way to honor life; after all, if Church members die, how can the Church survive? That brings up another fact about the wren. Although winter can devastate its population, the bird is extremely hardy; it always finds a way to survive. What is true for the wren is doubly true of the Dove; those who have been graced to speak with the power of the Holy Spirit have been hunted, killed, and displayed for over two thousand years; still, the Church continues to find ways not only to survive but to thrive. In fact, it is the irony of man and the glory of the Holy Spirit that the martyrdom of Stephen gave rise to the greatest come back in Church history. Notice near the end of the first reading, Luke tells us that the witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul (Acts 7:58). Saul, the same man who stood silently by at the death of the first martyr, in time became Paul, the loudest and hardiest wren of all.
St. Stephen, pray for us.