Flesh and Stones
Why does Christmas Day fold into the stoning of Stephen? Why does your calendar, O Church, disturb our reverie with bloodshed?
Why must our reflection on God becoming flesh—and so making holy ours—morph into demonic rage against the flesh of godly Stephen?
We must fathom the depths of His flesh as to offer our redeemed flesh any way He asks. For this we can ponder daily the miracle of God assuming our humanity. Who can grasp the Incarnation? With Mary, we marvel at the ‘Word made flesh, dwelling with us, revealing the Glory of the Father’ (Jn. 1:14; Lk. 2:19). Let praise of the Babe arise, as we mere shepherds (Lk. 2:20) revel in the God who made man then chose to become man as to raise us up in His divine Life. This Jesus, who St. Paul declared ‘the firstborn over all creation’—you and me—is also ‘the firstborn from among the dead’, breaking death’s back and raising us with Him ‘so that in everything He might reign supreme’ (Col. 1:15-20).
We marvel but cannot fathom the Incarnation. Early Church fathers help us here: they fought for God-in-flesh amid alluring myths (Gnosticism) that disembodied God and made Him a figment of fanciful spiritual ideas. Tertullian insisted that ‘the flesh is the hinge of salvation.’ Athanasius mused on how Jesus, in whose image we are made, became man to restore our broken image. He writes: ‘A portrait once effaced must be restored by the original...for the sake of his picture, even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the outline is renewed upon it; in the same way also the most holy Son of the Father, being His image, came to renew man once made in His likeness’ (On the Incarnation of the Word 14:1-2).
At Marco and Ania’s wedding, I witnessed how the Incarnation restores that original human image. Instead of offering a benign wedding blessing, Marco declared how this Babe broke the back of his same-sex attraction and raised Him up for holy earthy love of Ania. His concise words lit up the Nativity like nothing else could. Some praised, some pondered (‘are you saying that you…’), some of us knelt-in-heart and marveled at the Babe.
I glimpsed how ‘the glory of God is man fully alive’ (Irenaeus). And I heard a cracking in the Spirit that night, a declaration that raises holy ire. Marco ventured onto dangerous ground by making the Incarnation his strength in explicit moral weakness. Skeptics stoked by self-hate for failing to live up to their best might decry him as naïve, a novice yet to live the gauntlet of real marriage.
Yet after the glow of wedding or divine birthday, Christians see in hardship a sign of the Cross through which Jesus wins us and trains us in righteous love. In truth, only ‘by following Christ, renouncing themselves and taking up their crosses’ can faithful ones live real marriage. Only the God-man’s wounded flesh affords couples the grace to be true (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1615).
For every Christian who agrees that Incarnate Jesus enables us to live out His best for us, a dozen persons embittered by a host of disappointments clamor to extinguish that voice of hope. Fallen humanity tends toward the sickness of sin and so murders, in myriad ways, flesh made virgin by the Incarnate God.
The Church falls asleep in the glow of a manger. We awaken this day to infuriated men, gnashing teeth, and the slow stoning of Stephen’s flesh to death, the very body God-in flesh had redeemed (Acts 6-7).
Stephen is the Church’s first ‘martyr’, meaning simply ‘a witness to the truth’. His death punctuates that witness and challenges facile notions that faith in Jesus affords us an easy life. God entered the realm of the human in order to gain us so we can make Him known, whatever the cost. In the light of His ugly death, we accept a host of little deaths. We heed St. Paul’s words: ‘Time is short! Live in undivided devotion to the Lord’ (1 Cor. 7:29, 35). Stephen gave all for Jesus, and in so doing fulfills Paul’s words that in everything, even premature death, ‘Jesus has the supremacy.’
Declare the truth with the poetry of chaste love and the promises you keep with your body. Don’t fear provoking satanic rage by your life-in-the-flesh. Rejoice in rejection: you are finally doing something right! Live and die like Stephen who under fire ‘beheld and declared the glory of God and Jesus’ (Acts 7:56).
The wonder of the crib becomes ours only through the wood of the Cross.