(Reprinted from Fighting Irish Thomas, Dec. 26, 2006)
It was mid-January in 1989 and Lou Holtz and the Fighting Irish National Championship team had just finished the day in Washington, D.C., being honored by outgoing president Ronald Reagan. But after going to bed that night on top of the world, Coach Holtz was awakened at 3 a.m. the next morning with the news that Bobby Satterfield, the team's popular second string defensive back, had died of an unexpected heart attack.
Just as the sudden turn of events surely jolted Coach Holtz, the feast of St. Stephen, and the bloody story of the Church's first martyr's demise, startles many believers by falling on the day after the beautiful celebration of Christmas. But bloody as it is, Stephen's story, in its own way, is a thing of beauty too.
Most of the facts about this "filled with faith and the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5) young man are found in the sixth and seventh chapters of Acts of the Apostles. To me, it seems almost eerie how closely the details of Stephen's life and times mirrored those of Christ Himself. Stephen was "filled with grace and power," worked "great signs and wonders among the people," and debated "with wisdom and the spirit" against the Jewish leaders (Acts 6:8-10) just like Our Savior did. In the end, the jealous Jews brought false charges against him (including half-truths about Stephen's claiming to destroy the temple), eventually settling on blasphemy, and when the authorities were stoning him, Stephen (like Christ), cried out to the Father "do not hold this sin against them," and asked "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59-60). And, despite the utter hatred his persecutors showed him and the gruesomeness of the killing itself, Stephen's face "shone like that of an angel" (Acts 6:15).
Just as it is no mere coincidence that the details of the martyr's death closely resembled those of Christ's, it is certainly not chance that his feast is celebrated the day after Christmas. In fact, if ESPN can call Dec. 26 - Jan. 1 "College Football Bowl Week," the Church could easily call the same period "Catholic Martyr Week," for along with Stephen, the feasts of The Holy Innocents and St. Thomas Becket (not to mention that spiritual martyr at the foot of the cross, the Beloved Disciple John) follow close behind. For if the true spirit of Christmas proclaims, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35), the true spirit of Christ says it is far more beautiful to lose your life for His sake than to save it for yourself. And so, while the songs of the angels proclaiming Christ's arrival were beautiful music to the Shepherd's ears (Luke 2:13), Stephen's laying down his life for the Good Shepherd was the start of a movement even the most melodious hymn cannot match.