There are two different messages between Christmas day and St. Stephen’s Day. Christmas Day is predominantly about the birth of Jesus Christ, the Lord of all life. Almighty God came down into the human story as a little baby born in poverty, in a borrowed cave, and laid in a manger because there was no room at the inn.
On December 26th, the Church then celebrates the feast of its first martyr, Stephen. So, the liturgy goes from life to death in a sense. In the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen is one of the disciples filled with the Holy Spirit that will not stop preaching about the good news of Jesus Christ and those who oppose him want to put an end to him. He is stoned to death as he proclaims Christ and a young man called Saul entirely approves of the killing. Later we meet Saul as he too is transformed by Jesus Christ and becomes a champion of the Christian way.
So, in 24 hours its fitting that the Church shows in its liturgy the birth of Jesus Christ and what it means for the world, and how Stephen (and many others – even up to our time) witness to Jesus Christ by the shedding of their blood.
The feast of the Holy Family can be seen as a sign of contradiction too. In the Gospel today we see Jesus getting lost from the caravan of people travelling back to Nazareth from Jerusalem after the Passover. For three days his mother Mary, and Joseph are beside themselves with worry until they go back to Jerusalem and find him sat in the company of the doctors and experts of the law. Of course it must be hugely traumatic for Mary and Joseph after looking for him. Luke draws out the parallel between how the boy Jesus is missing for three days and later he will after his death on the cross be in the tomb for three days.
Let’s not get too caught up with the popular images of the Holy Family in that almost clinical and sterile way they can perhaps be portrayed. They had their struggles and fears. Just look at the infancy narratives of Luke’s gospel. They must be held up as a model for families today all over the world. Jesus, Mary and Joseph identify with the highs and lows of family life with all their complexities.
Look at the images coming from airports and ferry ports today as families are joyfully re-united for Christmas. There’s so much joy and excitement around the Christmas dinner table and the living room fireside. Yet, there can be tension and stress especially too as families make that extra effort. The Holy Family know that struggle. And as surely as our young people come back to the family for Christmas, there’s also the looming departure gates. I really pray that very soon our young people especially will be in a position to return home to Ireland if that’s what they want. For those that have made a new life and formed relationships overseas, may we always find new ways to make our world a smaller place.
I am also conscious of the families who will have an empty chair at the Christmas table. Families broken by emigration, unemployment, and death. The Holy Family of Nazareth, the model for all families, knows the struggles and sadness and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are with all families as they face the new year with hope or fear.
May this Christmas time and 2016 be blessed for all. Amen.