Today Catholics celebrate the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. In her wisdom the Church follows the joyful celebration of Christ's birth with the solemn reminder that following the Lord means to "pick up your cross" and follow Him. We must be ready to carry it wherever the Savior leads - even to a bloody martyr's death. Stephen dies under a hail of rocks thrown by a mob. With a vision before his eyes he prays for forgiveness of his murderers. In that screaming mob stands Saul, the future St. Paul, whose misguided zeal leads him to endorse the killing. Think of zealous Muslem terrorists invoking Allah to justify their evil acts and you won't be too far off from the future saint who will hear Jesus call, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
When I was confirmed, made a "soldier of Christ," the bishop ended the sacrament with a tap on the cheek, a reminder that following Christ means being ready to suffer. Unfortunately, that meaningful symbol has disappeared from the rite. Too bad. It sent a graphic message that the Christian life isn't for sissies and wimps. It takes strength, courage, fortitude, and a lifetime commitment.
It's easy to follow the star to the stable, a sanitized stable without the smell of manure and urine. Following Christ on the dangerous road to Egypt in the dead of night or up the rocky hill to Calvary is another story, one many would rather not live out.
Christmas Day and St. Stephen's feast day are the mini-series of the Christian life with only the ending shrouded in darkness, our personal ending. Will we see the vision of beatitude and hear the words "well done, good and faithful servant?" If we are willing to follow in the footsteps of St. Stephen and accept and turn to good the small, everyday sufferings and persecutions of life, we need not fear.