The Christmas Season this year runs from December 25-January 10. But the first few days the Church turns our attention away from the frivolous to the seriousness that marked early Christian life. Dec 26- St. Stephen, 27-St. John, 28-Holy Innocents, 29-Thomas Becket.
Reading the story of St. Stephen one is also struck by how the conflicts of the early church continue to this very day. St. Stephen was one of the original deacons, a ministry established because of ethnic tensions in the church, the Greek Jews vs. the Hebrew Jews. Remember all the early Christians were Jews.
The Hebrews saw themselves as the originals. The Greeks, while just as much jews, were perceived as come-heres, new arrivals, not really members of the community. The Greeks believed that they were not being treated fairly and so deacons were chosen from the Greek part of the community to make sure that their widows and orphans were being equally cared for.
Two thousand years later all over the US we are watching this same ethnic tension tear at the very fabric of our parishes. As the Hispanic populations grows, and the founding ethnic groups of various parishes shrink, we are watching the Hebrew vs Greek battle be played out in American churches, as English vs Spanish. Human nature has changed little over 2000 years. You will hear people in both groups try to dress it up but it is nothing more that a struggle for power, a sign of the stain of original sin that remains.
The first martyr was Greek-speaking Jew, not a Hebrew like the Apostles, and the Church went on to become Greek, witness the language of the New Testament. Greek then gave way to Latin in the west, and the cultural center of the Church shifted to Rome. Change is part of the life of the church.
The question for us is how we chose to respond to these shifts. As I look at our current conflict I cannot but remember the words of Abraham Lincoln "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The better angel of our nature is the Holy Spirit of God that is the same in each of us. As we remember the first great Greek Jewish Christian, the protomartyr of our faith. Let us focus not on those things that divide us but on the Gospel for which he died.