When I became a Catholic I no longer held the mainly Protestant view that Christmas is only one day of the year; rather I learned that Christmas is a season that extends from December 25th to Epiphany and beyond to the Solemnity Baptism of the Lord.
(The Christmas Season was originally 12 Days and ended with Epiphany on January 6. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord was added to the Season in 1969 to be celebrated the Sunday after Epiphany. In the United States Epiphany is celebrated on the first Sunday after January 1)
|“The Stoning of St. Stephen,” by Pietro da Cortona, C. 1660|
So it seemed odd to me at the time that on the second day of the Christmas Season, i.e. on December 26th, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Martyr Stephen. (I wasn’t familiar with the Christmas carol "Good king Wenceslas": "Good King Wenceslas looked out/ On the feast of Stephen...") We are supposed to be celebrating a Christmas Season of joy and yet the second day of this Season is about a martyr’s suffering and death?
A number of years after I became a Catholic and had been ordained a Priest, I began to understand Christmas in a deeper manner than simply the birthday of Jesus in Bethlehem, as important as this is. I began to understand the purpose of this birth much better, though it had always been there in the Angel’s message to the shepherds: "Unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
Thus, the Son of God took flesh and was born of Mary to be our Savior: to grow up and lead us God through his life, and his death on the Cross and his Resurrection to new life. All this is the mystery of God’s love which forgives and converts us from sin’s refusal to love as God loves. One way I heard this described is that the Creche is always in the shadow of the Cross. I would add that the Creche is also illuminated by the Resurrection.
So, the martyrdom of St. Stephen is in imitation of following the suffering and death of Christ. Stephen even says: " "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60. Compare to Jesus’s words on the Cross: "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing") Christ’s death demonstrated the great love of God for us; Stephen’s death demonstrates his love for God.
This puts me in mind of how God’s love is a sacrificial love: it gives to the other and this sometimes includes suffering for the loved on. So this love is what brought the Son of God to us, and this was already being revealed in Bethlehem at his birth.