Happy day after Christmas! (That’s “two calling birds” for all you 12 Days of Christmas people keeping track at home.)
Perhaps you’ve been overloaded with Christmas messages and sentiment the last few weeks, so the Staff at the Centre for Christian Studies would like to wish you a very merry Feast of St. Stephen (December 26). Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Early Christian Church, and it seems appropriate for CCS, a school grounded in the diaconal tradition, to honour his day with a bit of reflection.
So whether you’re staying in your pajamas all day recuperating from seven worship services in a row, rushing out to Boxing Day sales (Yikes!), or getting back to work after a day off, take a moment to remember Saint Stephen.
One of jobs of deacons in the early Christian community was the distribution of welfare, and Stephen, as a Greek-speaking Jew in Jerusalem, was particularly tasked with looking out for the interests of the Greek widows (who, it seems, weren’t getting their fair share). The existence of people like Stephen says to me that the Early Church took seriously the idea of sharing what they held in common, that it wasn’t just a nice idea but a real system the required administrative support and institutional advocates to keep it working.
My hope for you in 2015 is that you get your fair share. And that if you don’t, I hope that there’s somebody out there who “speaks your language” and can stand by you and call for justice. …And if you’re getting more than your fair share, I hope that you find ways to spread it around.
Looking out on this year’s feast of Stephen, the snow lying about Winnipeg is not nearly as deep or crisp or even, as normal. But the frost of the nightly news seems particularly cruel: shootings in Pakistan, Sydney and New York, missing and murdered indigenous woman, worsening effects of climate change.
In the face of this bitter weather, the morality tale of a good king sharing wine and flesh and privileged pine logs underwhelms my overly active critical analysis. It seems the worst of the charity model: self-congratulatory and sentimental. Part of me longs for a ruder wind of wild lament, a prophetic raging against this socio-political winter. Around the world, what the page faces — dark nights, strong winds, failing hearts, inability to go on – is more than a metaphorical reality. The world needs compassion and justice. In this new year, I long for conversations that imagine, and incarnate, new, non-charity models, and a church that creates footsteps of accompaniment and solidarity. In this new year, empowered by the blessing and spirit of faith, may we embody that hope in our communities and relationships.
The wren, oh the wren;
he’s the king of all birds,
On St. Stevens day
he got caught in the furze,
So it’s up with the kettle
and it’s down with the pan,
Won’t you give us a penny
for to bury the wren!
In Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day was traditionally marked by “mummers” who went door to door with a dead wren, singing, dancing, and collecting money to bury the wren.
Wikipedia tells us that most wrens are small and rather inconspicuous, resembling the swallow, in size at least. Jim Cotter (who wrote the lovely version of the Lord’s/Saviour’s Prayer, “Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker…”) wrote a book of Advent Verses to the tune of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, including this one about the swallow:
O come, O come, thou swallow small,
responding to your infants’ call,
fly far and wide across the earth
and end with hope our winter’s dearth.
Rejoice! Rejoice! A tiny bird
shall show a truth that seems absurd.
Perhaps an absurd truth that this tiny bird can show us is God’s involvement in the small and inconspicuous. We know that God pays as much attention to the sparrow and to the hairs of our head, as to the larger concerns of our lives, our ecology, our universe. May this season awaken our response to the call of an infant and the fate of a swallow in a spirit of gratitude and deep respect for all of God’s creation.
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power,
performed great wonders and signs among the people. (Acts 6)
The more I think about Stephen, the more I think about my grandfather. He wasn’t a deacon. He wasn’t prone to making speeches. He wasn’t martyred. His name wasn’t Stephen. It was Perry. Perry Trevethan Vanstone, to be exact.
The Bible has Stephen doing great wonders and signs among the people, being filled with wisdom and spirit. The wonders done by my grandfather were generally related to plumbing and welding. He particularly worked wonders with the church boiler. Although he was in church every Sunday… until it was time to count the offering, he didn’t have much interest in liturgy. But Grandpa tended to the boiler with the kind of reverence many would bring to the preparation of communion elements.
Stephen was referred to as a deacon – one who serves. My grandfather was serious about service. He knew every bathroom and kitchen in town and in the rural area where we lived, separated by a cornfield from my grandparents’ home. Grandpa saved plumbing parts no longer needed by one household in case they could be used by someone else who needed a part when it was no longer available from the manufacturer. On December 26, inevitably, someone needed a plumber to deal with a flood caused by a Christmas toy lodged firmly in the toilet or by a leaking valve under the kitchen sink in the midst of meal preparations for 20 people.
Grandpa was the kind of person who would slip away from a family gathering to attend to someone else’s crisis, quietly doing what needed to be done. He delivered church bulletins to people who hadn’t made it to church. He left baskets of garden vegetables on the doorsteps of people he knew were struggling financially or who would just be delighted with a garden treat. (My grandmother, Mildred, was the gardener and co-determiner of the destinations for the produce.) After my father died, Grandpa would sometimes be seen mowing our lawn or shoveling snow from our driveway – well into his 80s. He had perfect attendance at Rotary for 44 years.
Grandpa preferred the background to the limelight. Unlike Stephen, he was a man of few words. However, he shared with Stephen a deep determination, a commitment to his convictions, to doing the right thing, and to standing by decisions of principle. The story of Stephen in Acts suggests that the biblical Stephen was a young man when he was martyred; Grandpa died at the age of ninety-nine.
Stephen and Perry. On December 26, as our attention is drawn back to the ordinary routines and rhythms of our lives, their lives remind us of, and call us anew to, the work of diakonia, the ordinary work of noticing and responding…our work, all of us.
This year I’m spending Christmas in Ontario with family. Yesterday was the Hagerman celebration (dubbed Hagermania by my sister-in-law); today (St. Stephen’s Day aka “Boxing Day”) the Stewart side are together. It’s a bit chaotic and lots of fun.
When we pack up to return to Winnipeg (and decent cold weather) tomorrow, I won’t box up and put away Christmas for another year. For me it will be a beginning, or maybe a continuation. Luke’s Christmas story ends by saying “After they had finished doing all that was required…they returned to their hometown” (Luke 2:39). As I return to Winnipeg and “normal” life, I want to continue to embrace and nurture that vulnerable baby, that love born among us. During this holiday I have had glimpses of places where there’s a need for compassion and recompense. Instead of packing up Christmas, it’s time to get it out of the box and take it into life at home.