Slice another pie and serve more stuffing. The religious festivals marched on like salivating cholesterol monsters. The Feast of St. Stephens immediately followed Christmas on December 26th, a date jammed with Great Britain’s Boxing Day and Ireland’s Wren’s Day. It was also the Second Day of Christmas (remember: it’s a liturgical season) and Rummage-through-the-leftovers Day.

Because we can.

The St. Stephens feast is the most intriguing because it celebrates the first Christian martyr. Underscore that: We celebrate the hour a mob stoned someone to death. Then comes The Feast of Holy Innocents on December 28th and the remembrance of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket on the 29th. The cleric was murdered in his own cathedral in 1170.

How gauche. How morbid. How … non-modern to our techno-savvy minds. No business school offers martyrdom courses and no goal-oriented, five-year plan begins with these words: “I will take the following practical steps so I can be jailed, tortured, and possibly murdered …”

Yesteryear’s martyrs focused on Eternity (where will I be in two millennia?); today’s pragmatists dwell on the here and now. After all, medical advances often bless us with eighty-year lifespans and render Eternity irrelevant – or so it seems. Demotions to dungeons and chains deviate from projected career paths leading to the company’s top floor and helicopter pad.

Four sisters

Catholic sisters who were beaten, raped, and killed in El Salvador in 1980

Yet genuine martyrdom won’t let go. It sneaks into our irreligious culture and whispers, “There’s more to life than bits and bytes.” We know there’s a vast gap between genuine martyrs and suicide bombers, especially when the latter expect awaiting virgins. Authentic martyrdom is an act of love and real martyrs sacrifice themselves so others will thrive. We cannot merely admire them. Kudos to philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, but we’ll reserve awe for Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (assassinated in 1980), the three Catholic nuns and one lay worker raped and killed the same year in the same nation, and the six Jesuit priests killed there nine years later along with their housekeeper and her daughter.

Eternity whispers through them: “I’m still here – and your lengthened life is still temporal. No fair hiding from me.”

An early North African bishop, Fulgentius of Ruspe, led something of the martyr’s life in the fifth and sixth centuries. He constantly fled warring factions in the disintegrating Roman Empire, so perhaps he spoke of his own experience in the following meditation on St. Stephen. Maybe this key line serves as the true martyr’s epitaph: “Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.”

Here’s the entire homily:

Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier. Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.

Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvelous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.

And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.

Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.

Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.

My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.