Most, if not all, of us have a dollop of Neanderthal DNA in our make-up. Gradually we are learning that Neanderthals were not the brutal beings we once thought they were, though they must clearly have been bold and handy with a spear to have survived for 200,000 years. They were capable of art, which means they must have been capable of thought and reflection. More tellingly, recent archaeological studies have revealed that they were capable of compassion and care of the sick. Most Neanderthal bones show signs of injury, some quite serious. A recent find indicates that one man with a withered arm and broken leg survived for about ten years after being hurt. Someone must have cared for him. The BBC reporter announcing this called it evidence of compassion. I think I would go further and simply call it ‘love’. The Neanderthals interbred with homo sapiens. Their legacy to us is still being worked out but I’d say that their being compassionate and caring for the weak, of loving those who were physically unable to contribute much to the hard life the Neanderthals lived, is a lesson we could all do with learning, wouldn’t you?
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.