Dying for Change
– Andy Wade –
Today, the second day of Christmas, we celebrate St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church and, in the Orthodox Church (Julian calendar), the Theotokos, Mary, and her role as “Mother of God”.
On Christmas Eve I wrote a short piece on the birthing of God within us. Mary’s part in the birth of the Messiah should not be underplayed. A young woman, a child to us in Western culture, she yielded herself to God’s purpose for her life. This yielding resulted in her womb becoming the place at which humanity and God met in ways too mysterious to put into words, though some have tried. One ancient hymn declares:
“He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos.”
Emmanuel, God with us, begins in the obedience of Mary. In her womb God eternal and God in flesh meet – fully God, fully human. It’s not my intention to debate the various doctrines surrounding this event. But there is something deeply profound in the idea that, even before “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (Jn. 1:14), God could, God would, tabernacle in a young woman’s womb.
It is the yeildedness of Mary that makes room for God’s purposes to flourish in and through her. In a similar way, the yieldeness of Stephen, the first deacon of the early gathering of followers, gave birth to a faith so deep he would boldly proclaim God’s purposes in Christ, even as the stones were readied to drive life from his body.
On this second day of Christmas, as we remember both Mary and Stephen, I wonder where I’ve yielded to God, giving God’s Spirit a home in my life. And where in my life have I refused to yield, or perhaps even more insidious, been blinded to my need to yield?
These are critical questions as we seek to follow Christ in life. Far from being pietistic questions of an individualized faith, these questions go straight to the heart of community. Community is formed in the womb of our hearts, but its breath is shared with those we journey with. Community itself requires an act of dying to self so that we can live for Christ and one another. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we cannot yield ourselves to Jesus without also yielding ourselves to his body, the community gathered in his name.
Both Mary and Stephen embody lives of sacrificial love. For Mary, this radical obedience to God would result in scandal for her family and for Joseph and his family. She not only had to yield her individual life to God, a concept that would itself be culturally alien to the Jewish people, but she had to yield all that she hoped for in this new life with Joseph and his family. Her yieldedness to God would change her family, and her community, forever.
For Stephen, I imagine his fate was pretty obvious to him. Standing up to the religious elite, he proclaimed God’s truth in a way that didn’t mince words. Staring death in the face, he stood faithful before God while also standing up for his newfound community of faith.
Far too often we in the West see our actions as some statement of personal faith without realizing that what we do and say represents the whole body of Christ. I doubt that Stephen even have considered his actions anything other than standing firm with Christ in solidarity with his sisters and brothers who also knew Jesus as Lord. This was not about Stephen’s faithfulness, it was about the faithfulness of Jesus’ body present in the gathered community of faith.
So again I wonder:
- Where have I yielded to God, and where have I failed to yield?
- How does my obedience to Christ, or lack thereof, impact my community of faith?
- How does it affect our collective testimony of Good News to the world?
- How might we, as a gathered community of faith, be more pro-active in helping one another yield to the purposes of God? What attitudes and ideas might need to die in order for us, as community, to do these things?
- How might our willingness to “risk it all” be affected if we approached our faith more collectively, more communally? Would we discover a new level of creativity and imagination as we ventured into pathways once rejected because we feared going alone?