St. Stephen, First Martyr

The Feast Days of martyrs were often referred to as the dies natalis: the “birthday” of the martyr into eternal life, which is why it’s fitting that we celebrate the first martyr, St. Stephen, during the octave of Christmas. Christmas didn’t end with Christmas Day: it is a solemnity that we celebrate for eight days, and many of those days, like today, celebrate something related to Our Lord’s birth and childhood. Alongside the apostles the martyrs were the most venerated saints in the early Church: martyrdom was the greatest witness you could give to Christ and the greatest imitation of him to which you could aspire.

Today’s First Reading abridges the account of St. Stephen’s martyrdom, but even the moments recalled in the reading show how well his witness reflected what Our Lord warned us to expect in today’s Gospel. St. Stephen was set apart for a special ministry by the apostles because he was full of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 6:1-6), and the Spirit makes his arguments invincible when his detractors debate with him and accuse him. Even as they drag him outside of the city and stone him to death he entrusts himself to Our Lord and also forgives his killers.

At the end of the account it mentions Saul, who would some day be St. Paul. In that moment he approved of St. Stephen’s killing; later he would be a great apostle and follow St., Stephen into martyrdom. In today’s Gospel Our Lord tells us not to worry when our faith is called into question. We shouldn’t seek martyrdom, but we shouldn’t shy away from it either: St. Stephen sought to give witness to Christ, no matter where that led him. Let’s ask St. Stephen today to help us give witness to Christ no matter what the world may think of us. Through our witness even the most hardened souls might come to Christ.

Readings: Acts 6:8–10, 7:54–59; Psalm 31:3c–4, 6, 8ab, 16bc, 17; Matthew 10:17–22. See also 14th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday.

Christmas, Mass During the Day

It’s fitting that for the Mass during the day on Christmas the Gospel should be taken from the prologue of John the Evangelist: daytime is the brightest moment on Christmas Day, and John’s Gospel reflects a long life contemplating the wonder and mystery of God. We need spiritual light to reveal the profundity of this day. We need to gaze upon the manger, gaze upon the baby Jesus, and remind ourselves: “this is God, and he’s come to save and love me.” In a cave in Bethlehem, probably in a little hollowed out part of rock filled with some straw, God was born as a baby boy for me. What does that say about him, and what does that say about me?

As John reminds us in today’s Gospel, the true light that enlightens everyone has come into the world with the Incarnation and birth of Jesus. The Second Reading reminds us that in Jesus God has now said it all. It was unexpected and, to many, unobserved, but starting with the Holy Family those who received him in faith gained the ability to become, like the Son, children of God. We gaze today upon the baby Jesus in a manger and see the Word whom God the Father had in mind when he created the whole world. The baby Jesus is the key that unlocks the meaning of our existence here on earth; and even in a manger the Word is communicating to us.

Let’s kneel in spirit today before God in a manger and ask him to fill us with grace and truth.

Readings: Isaiah 52:7–10; Psalm 98:1–6; Hebrews 1:1–6; John 1:1–18.


Advent, December 24th, Mass in the Morning

Today’s Gospel is a prayer said every morning for the Liturgy of the Hours: the Benedictus of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. As we saw yesterday Zechariah regained his voice after he’d lacked faith in the promise the angel Gabriel had made to him that he would have a son and that his son would be the prophet immediately before the coming of the Lord. Zechariah’s first words are in praise of God for the coming of the Lord to save his people and for the blessings he had showered upon his son.

With the coming of the Lord Zechariah rejoices that the promises made as far back as Abraham are about to be fulfilled. Today’s First Reading reminds us that the coming of the Messiah is the coming of stability and peace for Israel forever, and a definitive defeat for her enemies. For Israelites who might only see this is something socio-political, as well as those who see a spiritual and religious reign where evil is definitively cast out it is good news. Salvation doesn’t begin with Our Lord’s Passion; it begins with his Incarnation and birth. The minute his little feet hit the manger the work of our salvation has begun in earnest.

As we’ve seen in the last few days before Christmas the Holy Spirit is eager to fill us with joy and a deeper awareness of the mysteries of salvation unfolding in these days. Just as the Spirit showered down these graces upon Mary and all of John the Baptist’s family, let’s ask the Spirit to help us rejoice this evening and tomorrow at the birth of our salvation. At the feet of the manger Our Lord wants to continue to work salvation in us; let’s open our hearts to him.

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1–5, 8b–12, 14a, 16; Psalm 89:2–5, 27, 29; Luke 1:67–79.

Advent, December 23rd

In today’s Gospel we see a happy ending to Zechariah’s quiet time due to his lack of faith in the message the angel Gabriel gave him a few days ago in the readings. John didn’t believe what the angel said would come to pass and now, after months of silence to contemplate the events unfolding and the angel’s promise coming true, he had an opportunity to get his faith back on track. Instead of being a silent spectator to the wonders unfolding he finally achieved the spiritual maturity to conform to God’s will for him and his family. He didn’t know his voice would be restored, but now he believed and obeyed, confirming that his newborn son’s name should be John as the angel said.

When he emerged from the Temple a few months ago, unable to speak, lips wagged. Now people realized that something bigger was going on, and gossip spread throughout the hill country. It would be years before they realized how big it was. The newborn John was already starting to fulfill the promise in the First Reading: his father turned back to him and turned back to God’s plan. Thanks to Zechariah’s renewed faith he received a voice again to sing the praises of God.

Advent is a time for turning back to God. Ask Our Lord to help you regain a voice of faith in order to welcome his birth and spread the Good News.

Readings: Malachi 3:1–4, 23–24; Psalm 25:4–5ab, 8–9, 10, 14; Luke 1:57–66.

Advent, December 22nd

In today’s Gospel the Blessed Mother reminds us that her story, and ours, is not one of rags to riches, but of rags to redemption. In singing the Magnificat she is rejoicing that the tatters of a world afflicted by sin with no hope of redemption on its own is taking a turn for the better with the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus. In becoming the Mother of God and of the Messiah she is celebrating that Our Lord is visiting his people and blessing the poor and the lowly, like her. The very fact that God chose this poor and humble girl to be his mother shows that wealth and status don’t mean much to him: he is captivated by poverty of spirit and humility, and that pulls down any pretensions the wealthy and mighty have about their merits before God.

Advent is almost over. Mary reminds us today that our cause for rejoicing should not be how many gifts we receive or how many people remember us at Christmas, but how blessed we’ve been by God. We may not have received everything we wanted this year, but Our Lord has blessed us with everything we truly need. Like Mary we should live this time praising God for the wonders he has worked in our lives and show gratitude to others for the gift they’ve been to us.

Elizabeth yesterday tried to tell Mary how great she was; Mary responded not only by saying how great God was (the Magnificat), but by caring for Elizabeth as she prepared for John’s birth, despite the fact that Mary was in her first trimester, characterized by hormonal ups and downs. Let’s imitate the selflessness of the Blessed Mother and serve others even at the expense of our plans or comfort zone.

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:24–28; 1 Samuel 2:2, 4–8ab; Luke 1:46–56.