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St. Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), was one of the Church’s first seven deacons. He was appointed by the leaders of the Church to distribute food and other necessities to the poor in the growing Christian community in Jerusalem, thereby giving the apostles more time for their public ministry of proclamation (Acts 6:2-5). He and the other deacons apparently were expected not only to wait on tables but also to teach and preach. When some of his colleagues became jealous of him, they brought Stephen to the Sanhedrin and falsely charged him with blaspheming against Moses (Acts 6:9-14). Stephen’s confession of faith, along with his rebuke of the members of the Sanhedrin for rejecting their Messiah and being responsible for His death, so infuriated them that they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death. Stephen is honored as the Church’s first martyr and for his words of commendation and forgiveness as he lay dying: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60).

Reverent hearts, it is an old, laudable custom to commemorate St. Stephen on the second day of Christmas. For just as the innocent children were the first martyrs after Christ’s birth, so also St. Stephen was the first after Christ’s ascension to praise our glorious King Jesus with his blood. Our predecessors used to say, Heri natus est Christus in mundo, ut hodie Stephanus nasceretur in coelo. “Yesterday Christ was born in the world, so that today Stephen would be born in heaven.” This is speaking rightly and truly of the fruit of Jesus Christ’s birth. If the Christ Child had not been born, the entire world would be lost. Thus Stephen’s sleep in death and entrance through the open heaven to the glory of God in eternal life will show us well what great usefulness and goodness we have from the incarnation and birth of the Child Jesus.

Stephen means a “garland” or a “crown.” Think here of our beautiful Christmas consolation. Whoever believes in the name of Jesus is righteous before God and can expect a glorious crown. Devout Christians are “virgins” before God (Matthew 25:1; Revelation 14:4) and have four different virgin garlands. The first is the garland of righteousness gifted. Second is the garland of righteousness begun. The third is the garlandof all kinds of cross and thorns. The fourth is the glorious garland of perfect righteousness.

The ancient teachers of the Church say that the Lord Jesus loved Stephen in life, in death, and after death. First, in life, for He filled him with His Spirit, with heavenly wisdom, and faith unfeigned. Second, in death, for He offered him heaven opened and waited for his soul. Third, after death, for He gave him the garland of glory and set up for him a famous commemoration until the Last Day. These are the beautiful flowers of Christmas. Those who truly love our glorious King Jesus Christ shall be certain of God’s grace in life, in death, and after death. They shall not die, but live, and proclaim the work of the Lord.—Valerius Herberger

 Acts 6: And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen… This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.

The freedmen, or literally, the liberated ones, were possibly descendants of manumitted slaves.  So maybe for them to hear that they will be freed freely in Jesus Christ would have been galling and going against the ‘freedom’ they had sought in their own synagogue and earned for themselves, but in Christ they were truly manumitted, eternally. In front of them and the high priest, in his speech, more like a sermon,  (Acts 7) Deacon Stephen went through Israel’s history.  He  pointed out the way the Lord led them in freedom for Israel only to reject the Lord’s Word and finally that happened to the Messiah Jesus and they resisted the Holy Spirit and the prophets who spoke by the Holy Spirit, and did not keep the Law.  The people did not want to hear any more and they stoned him to death.   Here was a man full of the Holy Spirit who was in love with the One born yesterday Who alone can free, what no law could free.  We could sing today, On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…Himself:  Jesus Christ.  “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60).And the Lord said before He died, “Father, in Thy hands I commend my spirit” and “Forgive them, for they know not what they do”. 

It is recorded that Stephen’s face shined like an angel’s (6: 15).  “Angel” means “messenger”.  Stephen was a messenger of the message of glad tidings of Jesus Christ. People will misunderstand both the message and the messenger and think by killing the messenger, they will kill the message, but they can’t.  Pope Francis does not want his church to evangelize the Jews, funny, since that is what Stephen did.  Even if Church and State try to stop the message, it has not worked yet, for the Lord, even through the blood of His saints, wants all men to come to the knowledge of Christ and His Name to free all men and women.

Hymnody

Jesus! Name of priceless worth

To the fallen of the earth

For the promise that it gave,

“Jesus shall His people save.”

—Jesus! Name of Wondrous Love (LSB 900:3)

Prayer of the Day

Heavenly Father, in the midst of our sufferings for the sake of Christ grant us grace to follow the example of the first martyr, Stephen, that we also may look to the One who suffered and was crucified on our behalf and pray for those who do us wrong; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

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In this antiphon the Church remembers Sinai.  The Lord is the Lawgiver.  Adonai is another name for the LORD.  Adonai is used about 340 times in the Old Testament and is usually translated as Lord.  Adonai was used in Israel as a substitute for the divine Name, Yahweh, the Tetragrammaton.  Adonai evokes the majesty of the one true God who gave His Law on Sinai and before that appeared in the burning bush to Moses.  When Adonai appeared to Moses it was with the promise of the divine Name:  I AM.  The great I AM would save His people Israel from slavery in Egypt.  He gave the Law to save us from ourselves, for without law we resort to brutality in word and deed.  The Old Adam needs God’s Law.

Flannery O’Connor was a novelist and short story writer and for what it’s worth, one of my favorite writers.  She lived a short life, because of lupus, and she was a devout Roman Catholic living in Milledgeville, Georgia, in the “Christ obsessed south”, as she put it.  After she published a novel, Wise Blood, it was reviewed in Time and  she wrote to a friend about the attention it was receiving: 

Although I am a Catholic writer, I don’t care to get labeled as such in the popular sense of it, as it is then assumed that you have some religious ax to grind.  However, since the review in Time, my mail has been full of attempts to save me from the Church…

This letter is dated 23 April 1960.  Not much has changed of the secularist society trying to save us from the Church or Christians from Christianity, or believers from the Bible, or the faithful from the Lord.  Curious isn’t it?  By so saving us,  then we won’t be narrow minded and mean spirited.  Granted that there are such in the Church, yet it was by God’s grace, that ‘narrow-minded and  mean spirited’ Christians developed schools and universities, hospitals and orphanages, cared for the dying, fed the hungry, did not abort their young, nor sought personal revenge.  They did so not to be saved but  because they were saved from their own idols.  Why did Christians so serve?  God’s Law showed them by His Law the way to go, and when in sin, the Way out:  He sent His Son to bear our sin and be our Savior.    

In a secularist post World War I Germany, which earlier in the century had developed a Biblical scholarship denying the Bible as God’s Word, it was ripe in it’s secularist liberalism for open mindedness.  It has to be remembered that the Nazis were both anti-Jewish and anti-Christian. The path to tyranny is a Church-less, Word-less, God-less, Law-less, Christ-less world. It’s in the novel Wise Blood that Hazel Motes becomes a street preacher proclaiming “the Church without Christ”.   Sadly timely. The soul is made to adore and without the Lord, will adore the idols of this world and the Leader can step into the temple of our souls and the soul becomes the haunt of the new Baals.  It is into the idolatrous world that the Lord came, born of the Virgin Mary, to save us from those trying to save us from the Lord…and for our would be ‘saviors’  as well.  And this is the reason the Church is called to pray and sing till the end of all days:

Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

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Prayer of the Day

Almighty God, You bestowed upon Your servant Nicholas of Myra the perpetual gift of charity. Grant Your Church the grace to deal in generosity and love with children and with all who are poor and distressed and to plead the cause of those who have no helper, especially those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief. We ask this for the sake of Him who gave His life for us, Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

About St. Nicholas:  Of the many saints commemorated by the Christian Church, Nicholas (d. AD 342) is one of the best known. Very little is known historically of him, though there was a church of Saint Nicholas in Constantinople as early as the sixth century. Research has affirmed that there was a bishop by the name of Nicholas in the city of Myra in Lycia (part of modern Turkey) in the fourth century. From that coastal location, legends about Nicholas have traveled throughout time and space. He is associated with charitable giving in many countries around the world and is portrayed as the rescuer of sailors, the protector of children, and the friend of people in distress or need. In commemoration of Sinte Klaas (Dutch for “Saint Nicholas,”in English “Santa Claus”), December 6 is a day for giving and receiving gifts in many parts of Europe.(from The Treasury of Daily Prayer, CPH)

The quote below is from an article by Lutheran lay theologian, Dr. Veith in World Magazine which cites a reliable tradition regarding the real Nicholas.

Known for his generosity and his love of children, Nicholas is said to have saved a poor family’s daughters from slavery by tossing into their window enough gold for a rich dowry, a present that landed in some shoes or, in some accounts, stockings that were hung up to dry. Thus arose the custom of hanging up stockings for St. Nicholas to fill. And somehow he transmogrified into Santa Claus, who has become for many people the secular Christmas alternative to Jesus Christ.

But there is more to the story of Nicholas of Myra. He was also a delegate to the Council of Nicea in a.d. 325, which battled the heretics who denied the deity ofChrist. He was thus one of the authors of the Nicene Creed, which affirms that Jesus Christ is both true God and true man. And unlike his later manifestation, Nicholas was particularly zealous in standing up for Christ.

During the Council of Nicea, jolly old St. Nicholas got so fed up with Arius, who taught that Jesus was just a man, that he walked up and slapped him! That unbishoplike behavior got him in trouble. The council almost stripped him of his office, but Nicholas said he was sorry, so he was forgiven.

The point is, the original Santa Claus was someone who flew off the handle when he heard someone minimizing Christ. Perhaps we can battle our culture’s increasingly Christ-less Christmas by enlisting Santa in his original cause. The poor girls’ stockings have become part of our Christmas imagery. So should the St. Nicholas slap.

Not a violent hit of the kind that got the good bishop in trouble, just a gentle, admonitory tap on the cheek. This should be reserved not for out-and-out nonbelievers, but for heretics (that is, people in the church who deny its teachings), Christians who forget about Jesus, and people who try to take Christ out of Christmas. Source: WORLD Magazine  December 24, 2005, Vol. 20, No. 50

Further reflection: Nicholas is called “good St. Nick”!  He was not exactly good and that’s the point.  He knew he was not good on his own steam.  He slapped Arius for his false doctrine that there was a time when Christ was not. Nicholas  knew the Scripture, “The good that I want to do I don’t do but I do the very thing I hate…” (Romans 7: 7-25).  His goodness and love were purified by Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit through the gift of faith by His grace.  Nicholas was good in Christ, but not nice.  We encourage children to “be nice”.  It used to be “be good”.  If a young woman was “good”, it meant, for instance, she was a virgin.  As a friend and colleague had as his screen saver, “Nice is the enemy of the good”.  Even Woody Allen got some things right:  “Have a nice day”  “No, thanks I have better plans”.  So does the Lord. Nice is attainable as a kind of a law of nice deeds and feelings.  Nice Christians won’t stand up to false doctrine.  Nice Christians go along with the crowd, that is, the world and we have seen the result in many a Christian denomination. Good is related to God, as God is good, which also means He is Holy.  Nicholas knew that his goodness was predicated on the utter goodness of God in Christ in His Nativity for children, the fallen children of Adam and Eve.  It also meant that Nicholas stood for something.  The martyrs died for the good of the Gospel, no one was ever martyred for being nice.

  So if a heretic tries to take Christ out of Christmas, literally Christ Mass, there is no Mass, no Holy Communion, no communion of saints and no salvation.  If a heretic denies the Law of God and it’s eternal validity on every soul, then we are soul-less and there is no need for the Savior…but obviously there is and He became flesh, frail flesh.  It’s not only about a “happy  Christmas” but more and more a “slappy Christmas”:  we need to wake up as we see His Day approaching. It used to be in the Roman Catholic Rite of Confirmation the bishop would administer a light slap on the cheek of the confirmand to remind him that he is a soldier of Christ to spread the faith. I guess that people found the slap was offensive…but so is Christ Jesus to the devil and his angels. I think the confirmand slap means  a wake-up call.  Maybe it is Christians who need the slap more than heretics these days!  The Church has a backbone, pure doctrine, so that with a strong back we can bend and serve our dying neighbors Jesus Christ. Nicholas knew that. It’s about the true doctrine of The Nicene Creed. 

The Nicene Creed

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only‐begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men * and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe in one holy Christian# and apostolic Church I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

*Us men means all people.
#Christian: the ancient text reads “catholic,” meaning the whole Church as it confesses the wholeness of Christian doctrine

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And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.St. John 1: 14  (King James Version)

 There is the perennial wish that Christmas were every day.  The gifts, the lights, the food, the preparations, the  presents, the wrapping, the buying, the scurrying, the lack of funds, the traffic the busyness, the family squabbles and fights, the loneliness, the turmoil…oh, never mind.  And Christ was born for this.  Maybe not Christmas every day, but Christ Mass every week. We can not take Christ out of Christmas, but let us always keep the Mass in ChristMass.  The word “Christmas” is simply the shortened, if you will, the slurred version of Christ Mass. Mass or the Divine Service of His Body and Blood for us and for our salvation. His Body and His Blood for  you.    As the angel told Joseph, the Son to be born will save people from their sins.   His Word is for us all each and every day.  Maybe not Christmas every day, but a Christmas card every week.  Christ Mass card every week is confessed,  for us all. By His grace we believe in,

 …one Lord Jesus Christ…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.” (The Nicene Creed)

The Creed is His Christ Mass card to us every week summing up the Incarnation, for the Incarnation is our salvation:. 

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

St. John 1: 14 

 and again, from Colossians,

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation

and again,

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

and again, John’s Gospel:

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

And again, John’s Gospel:

Jesus came and stood among them and said to them,“Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

This past week I watched an interview with a renowned television mega-church reverend.  The interviewer asked the reverend the meaning of Christmas.  He said, “To me, Christmas, is the birth of Christ, number one, but it’s all about making memories.”    He got the first part right, Christmas is about the birth of Christ, number one, no buts. Period.  The “buts” to God’s grace in Jesus Christ only gets us going the wrong way. There are no “buts” to the grace of His forgiveness coursing through His Sacred Veins.  The reverend then went on to explain that Christmas is not about presents and food but memories and “making memories with your family”.  No, it really is about Jesus Christ.   First, a lot of families have downright painful and sorrowful memories associated with this time of the year and then second, notice the path  the minister puts the hearer on: into himself, his memories, his works, his spirituality…not out to Jesus Christ, God in man made manifest. The One has come for those broken, divorced, lonely, prone to wander, Lord I feel it.  The interviewer then responded: “Well, I can’t think of a better and more appropriate Christmas message to all of our viewers.”  Well, I can because the Lord has given us a much better message, His Son, Jesus Christ who will take away people’s sins. The message became man.   Unto you this day is born in the city of David is Christ the Lord.  Who did the angels say that first Christmas card to?  Answer:  To the shepherds, not the rich, the powerful and the famous.  If the Lord were born a political king, the politicos would have come and worshiped, instead they would seek to kill Him, still do. But the Lord’s rule is of a holy, H O L Y,different sort, spiritual.  “The end purpose of government is the peace of the world, the end purpose of Christ’s Church is eternal peace.” “The world rejoices when things are good and it has money and possession, power and glory.  But a troubled, sorrowful heart craves nothing more than peace and comfort, to know that it has a gracious God.  And this joy, whereby the sorrowful heart has rest and peace, is so great that all the world’s joy reeks in comparison” (Luther) Looking for the perfect gift this Christmas?   The angels announced  good news of  great joy to the shepherds that the Good Shepherd was born. They found the perfect gift for Christmas and this perfect gift finds you, for He is the Giver of all things, visible and invisible.

“Christmas is for kids.”  No, it’s not. Christmas is for sinners. This is the reason for His coming, for the Incarnation, for the Word becoming flesh.  Christmas is for the Child, the Son born of Mary, the Son of God so that we become in Him children of the heavenly Father in Holy Baptism. We have.  Christmas is for sinners, for you, for me. For the grace of God has appeared, appeared, came among us full of grace and truth, more palpable than any Christmas card, especially an e-card, can ever be: flesh of our flesh, bone of our bones. Every birth and life  is testimony to the Creator but the gestation and birth of Jesus Christ is even more marvelous for it is the testimony to our Redeemer:  “The first sound God heard with human ears was the music of His mother’s heart.”  bringing salvation for all people, the only gift that lasts is His grace in this place, from heaven’s place to your hearts and homes in His forgiveness 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age… The law of God shows us daily when we had gone astray, but only the grace of God trains us to renounce the ungodliness and worldly passions.  Ungodliness and worldly passions tie us all up and tied us down and His grace breaks the bonds of the evil one, to say No the devil and all his empty promises daily paraded on T.V. and the internet,  to live “self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age”.  Looking for stability in your life?  Go to the stable and the manger where He was born so He is born in us. His life in our lives is the grace of God that brings us again to the child born of Mary, the only begotten of God before all worlds, in love’s pure light for us all, which will shone forth in a stable and finally and fully, upon the Cross and the cry, He is risen.

 Notice that a real Christmas card is always a birth announcement.  Birth announcements like real Christmas cards, not holiday cards, are of joy:  a child is born.  The birth of every child is sheer joy. The angel told the shepherds this is Great Joy, the Lord is Great Joy.  “…poor consciences need to be preached to as the angel here preaches: Hear me, one and all , who are miserable and sorrowful in heart, for I bring you a joyful tiding.  You must not imagine that Christ is angry with you.  For He did not to earth and become man for that reason, that He might shove you into hell.  Much less was He crucified and died for that purpose; instead He came that you might have great joy in Him.  in short, there are no sorrow grapes with Him.” This birth announcement, this Christ Mass greeting is for you:  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. For you, for every man, woman and child on earth and in this Divine Service, the perfect gift, the perfect greeting is for sinners, for our redemption has come.  The world sees him sore oppressed and oppresses Him, but for all who believe and are baptized, He frees us to live in His freedom as His dear children. Luther:   “Accordingly, wherever Christ is, in the manger or at God’s right hand, whether called Lord or Judge, as we confess in faith concerning him, he is at all times our Savior. Everything that he has done and will yet do has this significance and this purpose, that we might be saved. God grant us his grace that we may receive and ever hold fast to these things. Amen.

 

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The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord: ChristMass Eve, Divine Service, 7:00pm, at the Library, refreshments following

 

“I am fearful and anxious, and for that reason I must remember that Christ is known by no other name than the one the angel gives, namely, “Great Joy.” Here I see another picture before me, that a virgin sits in a darkened stable in Bethlehem with a dear, gracious Child in her lap, whose name is “Great Joy.” (from Martin Luther’s Holy Christmas Day Sermon, 1532)

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“The first sound God heard with human ears was the music of His mother’s heart.”  (source: unknown)

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