Saturday, 26 December 2020

Praying at Christmas with
Lichfield Cathedral:
2, Saturday 26 December 2020

Saint Stephen before the Council … a window by CE Kempe (1837-1907) in the south aisle in Lichfield Cathedral in memory of John Toke Godfrey-Faussett (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout Advent and Christmas this year, I have been using the Prayer Diary of the Anglican Mission Agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) for my morning reflections each day, and the Advent and Christmas Devotional Calendar produced at Lichfield Cathedral for my prayers and reflections each evening.

Advent is the Church’s mindful antidote to some of the diversion and consumerism of a modern Christmas. It prepares us to encounter Christ again in his joy and humility.

In ‘The Advent and Christmas Devotional Calendar 2020,’ the Dean and community at Lichfield Cathedral have invited us to light our Advent candle each day as we read the Bible and join in prayer.

This calendar is for everyone who uses the Cathedral website, for all the Cathedral community, and for people you want to send it to and invite to share in the daily devotional exercise.

This is a simple prayer and bible-reading exercise to help us to mark the Advent Season as a time of preparation for the coming of Christ.

It is designed to take us on a journey, looking back to John the Baptist and Mary the Mother of Jesus; looking out into the world today, into our own hearts and experience; outwards again to Jesus Christ as he encounters us in life today and in his promise to be with us always.

You can download the calendar HERE.

The community at Lichfield Cathedral offers a number of suggestions on how to use this calendar:

● Set aside 5-15 minutes every day.

● Buy or use a special candle to light each day as you read and pray through the suggestions on the calendar.

● Try to ‘eat simply’ – one day each week try going without so many calories or too much rich food, just have enough.

● Try to donate to a charity working with the homeless or the people of Bethlehem.

● Try to pray through what you see and notice going on around you in people, the media and nature.

After the busy rounds of Advent and Christmas Day, despite the disappointment of cancelled services, I am taking a little time this evening to pray and reflect using the Advent and Devotional Calendar from Lichfield Cathedral, which comes to an end today.

Saturday 26 December 2020 (Saint Stephen’s Day):

Read Acts 7: 51-60 (NRSVA):

51 ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.

Reflection:

Reflect on the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Jesus gave us life through death – eternal life. We remember that the world hates and persecutes the light – anything that calls into question its values and opinions. God’s light searches and judges. Pray for all who stand up for God’s truth and suffer as a result.

Yesterday’s evening reflection

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Please call this day
Saint Stephen’s Day,
not ‘Boxing Day’

Inside Saint Stephen Walbrook, a Wren church in the heart of the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It must have been about 50 years ago, while I was training to be a chartered surveyor with Jones Lang Wootton, that a file for an investment or development property went missing. It was an important portfolio, and ought to have been filed under ‘S’ for ‘Saint Stephen’s Green.’

Eventually, the file was found under the letter ‘G’.

‘I filed it under ‘G’ for Green,’ the person who did the filing explained.

But for many Dubliners, it is probably not Saint Stephen’s Green, but ‘Stevenses Green,’ as in ‘Dr Stevenses Hospital’ and ‘Stevenses Day.’

I find it hard to call today ‘Boxing Day.’ For me, 26 December is always going to be Saint Stephen’s Day.

Stephen is a family name: my grandfather, father, eldest brother and a nephew were baptised Stephen. But my reasons for insisting on retaining the name of Saint Stephen’s Day is not some quirky genealogical sentimentality or some displaced filial loyalty.

It is theologically important to remind ourselves on the day after Christmas Day of the important link between the Incarnation and bearing witness to the Resurrection faith.

Saint Stephen the Deacon is the Protomartyr of Christianity. The Greek word name Στέφανος means ‘crown’ or ‘wreath’ and the Acts of the Apostles tell is that Saint Stephen earned his crown at his martyrdom when he was stoned to death around the year AD 34 or 35 by an angry mob encouraged by Saul of Tarsus, the future Apostle Paul.

Stephen was the first of the seven deacons chosen in the Apostolic Church in Jerusalem. While he was on trial, Saint Stephen experienced a theophany: But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ (Acts 7: 55-56).

The Lion’s Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem is also known as Saint Stephen’s Gate because of the tradition that Saint Stephen was stoned there. In AD 415, a church was built Saint Stephen’s honour in Jerusalem to hold his relics. The relics were later moved to Constantinople. Today, those relics are said to be buried under the altar of the Church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome.

The ‘Feast of Stephen’ is inextricably linked with Christmas through the English carol Good King Wenceslas, although during my visit to Prague last year, I was aware that the Czechs have a far better claim than the English to Good King Wenceslas.

Today is a public holiday in the United Kingdom as Boxing Day. But as Saint Stephen’s Day, today is still a public holiday in Ireland and many other countries, including Australia, Austria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, and parts of France, the Philippines and Spain.

In the Orthodox Church, Saint Stephen’s Day is celebrated on 27 December, and is known the ‘Third Day of the Nativity.’

The interior of of the Stephansdom or Saint Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In my morning and evening prayer diaries in my blog postings this morning and this evening, drawing on resources produced by USPG and Lichfield Cathedral, I am using photographs from Saint Stephen Walbrook, a Wren church in the heart of the City of London that has been listed by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as one of the 10 most important buildings in England, and a stained-glass window in Lichfield Cathedral, depicting the martyrdom of Saint Stephen.

Saint Stephen’s Church in Mount Street Crescent, Dublin – popularly known as the ‘Pepper Canister Church’ – is one of the last churches built in the classical style in Dublin. Saint Stephen’s, which opened in 1824, was designed by John Bowden and Joseph Welland. The tower and portico were modelled on three elegant monuments in Athens: the Erechtheum on the Acropolis (the portico), the Tower of the Winds (the campanile), and the Monument of Lysicrates (the cupola). But the Victorian apse, which was added in 1852, owes its inspiration to the Oxford Movement.

However, the most impressive church I have visited that is named after the first martyr is the Stephansdom, the Cathedral of Saint Stephen, in Vienna, which dates back to 1147.

Having visited the Stephansdom many years ago, while I was a panellist at a seminar organised by the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, I returned to visit the cathedral last year.

A memorial tablet there recalls Mozart’s relationship with the cathedral. This was his parish church when he lived at the ‘Figaro House’ and he was married there and two of his children were baptised there. He was named an adjunct music director there shortly before his death, and his funeral was held in the Chapel of the Cross in the cathedral in 1791.

The Stephansdom has 23 bells, and it is said Beethoven realised the full extent of his deafness when he saw birds flying from the bell tower and realised he could not hear the bells toll.

A few years ago, I also visited Saint Stephen’s House, the theological college in Oxford popularly known as ‘Staggers,’ which is firmly rooted in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, maintaining high standards of liturgy and intellectual rigour.

Saint Stephen’s House was founded in 1876 by leading Anglo-Catholics members of the Anglo-Catholic Movement, including Edward King, then Regius professor of Pastoral Theology at Oxford and later Bishop of Lincoln.

King was one of the outstandingly holy men of his time. Other founding figures included Henry Scott Holland, one of the leading figures in the development of the Christian social teaching of the time. It was he who suggested the name of the house.

Saint Stephen’s has moved since its foundation, and is now located at Iffley Road in East Oxford in the former monastery of the Cowley Fathers, where it is said Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to return to Germany where he met with martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom illustrates how none of this architecture or grandeur, and the extension to the Christmas holiday provided by this saint’s day would have any meaning today without the faithful witness of Saint Stephen, the first deacon and first martyr, who links our faith in the Incarnation with our faith in the Resurrection.

An icon of Saint Stephen, the first deacon and the martyr

Praying at Christmas with USPG:
2, Saturday 26 December 2020

Saint Stephen Walbrook in the heart of the City of London … listed by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as one of the 10 most important buildings in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout Advent and Christmas this year, I am using the Prayer Diary of the Anglican Mission Agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) for my morning reflections each day, and the Advent and Christmas Devotional Calendar produced at Lichfield Cathedral for my prayers and reflections each evening.

I am one of the contributors to the current USPG Diary, Pray with the World Church, introducing the theme of peace and trust next week.

After a very busy Christmas Day, despite services cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and before this day starts, I am taking a little time this morning for my own personal prayer, reflection and Scripture reading.

The theme of the USPG Prayer Diary this week (20 to 26 December 2020) is ‘Christmas in the Holy Land.’ This week’s theme was introduced by the Very Revd Canon Richard Sewell, Dean of Saint George’s College, Jerusalem.

Saturday 26 December 2020 (Saint Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr):

Let us give thanks for the work the Diocese of Jerusalem is doing to aid victims of the explosion that happened in Beirut in August.

The Collect of the Day:

Gracious Father,
who gave the first martyr Stephen
grace to pray for those who stoned him:
Grant that in all our sufferings for the truth
we may learn to love even our enemies
and to seek forgiveness for those who desire our hurt,
looking up to heaven to him who was crucified for us,
Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Advocate,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Merciful Lord,
we thank you for these signs of mercy,
we praise you for feeding us at your table
and giving us joy in honouring Stephen,
first martyr of the new Israel;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Matthew 10: 17-22 (NRSVA):

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18 Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother”.’ 20 He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s morning reflection

An image of Saint Stephen in Saint Stephen Walbrook … on the site of a seventh century Saxon church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org