Boxing Day has brought – for some bizarre and inexplicable reason – to my memory songs by the Beautiful South and Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott. Heaton manages to write poetically of a culture that has become plastic – artificially coloured water instead of a full-bodied red wine.
The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun – with Coca Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun.
A bit pessimistic? Or a reasonable judgement on a culture that allows itself to be anaesthetised by ‘stuff’ and sentimentality to the extent that reality (as most people on the planet experience it) is avoided?
Today is St Stephen’s Day in the Christian calendar. Stephen was the first Christian martyr and his story is told in Acts chapters 6 and 7. He got stoned for telling an unpopular narrative of God, Jesus and the world. He didn’t go looking for death, but he didn’t duck it when it came.
What matters here is simply that Stephen saw life in the context of eternity. Not everlasting life (in terms of time and years), but life in all its depth and quality – life that can be given up because death does not have the final word: that belongs to the God of resurrection who spoke life into being (“Let there be…”) in the first place and yet enters into the heart of death, loss and horror without a hint of romanticism.
It used to bother me that Christmas Day was followed by this day of martyrdom – a phenomenon that seemed utterly remote as a possibility in the placid days of my youth. Today, however, Christians are being slaughtered in deliberate persecution across the globe. Martyrdom has become a very modern practice – a very inconvenient one for western liberal sensibilities, according to which religion was to be seen only as some anodyne analgesic for helping feeble people limp through life.
The baby of Bethlehem would grow into the man of Calvary and the empty tomb. We move in one day from the dependent baby (Jesus) to the man (Stephen) who had to choose and take responsibility for his choice. One day the baby would be the man who had to choose – and who would make it clear that his followers would face the same choices. For many Christians today the choice is neither notional nor merely ‘spiritual’; it is real, imminent and immensely costly.
I am not sure we have begun to take on board the enormity of this costly discipleship. But, the Christian calendar – by accident or design – confronts us not only with a biblical figure, but with the challenge to our own response to mortality and eternity.