It is sad that the word ‘martyr’ is now most commonly heard in the context of Islamic extremism. That is unfair to both Christians and Muslims, but it is particularly unfortunate that it should have distorted our understanding of what it means to witness to one’s beliefs. From a Christian perspective, the martyr does not choose to die, still less does he/she inflict death on others; he or she accepts death because the alternative — to accept a lie — is unthinkable.
Today, when we have barely had time to register the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the Church directs our thoughts towards Stephen, the first Christian martyr (the Holy Innocents are also considered proto-martyrs although not strictly Christians) and we see the close connection between martyrdom and forgiveness. As Christians we witness best to the truth of Christ with our love and compassion. There are many ways of expressing that, and over the Christmas season, millions of people who think of themselves as ‘nothing very special’ will have shown extraordinary generosity and kindness to others. Forgiveness can be a bit more tricky. It doesn’t come naturally to us, because we find it harder to forgive an injury done to ourselves than to be universally benevolent. We have to deal with the particular, not the general; and so often, there is a history we are not keen to let go because it somehow validates our reluctance to forgive.
Stephen challenges all that nonsense. His witness to Christ is precisely that of someone who forgives, at the moment of death, those who have caused his suffering. In this he unites himself with the sacrificial death of his Master. It is a short step from the crib to the cross. Today, as we survey the remains of yesterday’s jollifications, we are powerfully reminded that the Word became flesh, not so we could revel in holy sentimentality, but so we could change the world and make it what it is meant to be: a pure and beautiful reflection of the loving and compassionate heart of God who, in Christ, has forgiven us everything.