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AsiaNews (12/26/05) – The close link between the birth of Jesus and the martyrdom of St Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, was at the centre of today’s Angelus, which Pope Benedict XVI delivered from the balcony of his study.

That the joy of Christmas may also be marked by ‘martyrdom’ is not something out of place, the Pontiff said. Having become disciple of Christ, Christians followed him on the “path of the Cross”.

The Pope spoke about the many martyrs and persecutions the Church had to endure across the centuries until now. He said that “even where there is no persecution, living the Gospel coherently carries a high price”.

Here are the words Benedict XVI pronounced before the Angelus:

Dear brothers and sisters!

After celebrating the Solemnity of the Birth of Christ yesterday, let us remember the birth in heaven of St Stephen, the first martyr.

“Yesterday, the Lord was born on earth so that Stephen may be born in heaven.” Following the Ambrosian liturgy, such words are pronounced when breaking the bread and best summarise the unique connection between these two celebrations.

Like Jesus on the Cross who put his full trust in the Father and forgave his killers, Stephen, at the moment of his death, called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. [. . .] Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (cf Acts, 7: 59-60).

Stephen was a true disciple of Jesus, someone who emulated Him to perfection. With Stephen begins the long series of martyrs who sealed their faith by offering their life to proclaim with their heroic witness that God was made man and open the path to the Kingdom of Heaven for mankind.

To speak about St Stephen’s martyrdom in the joyful atmosphere of Christmas is not out of place. Indeed, the cross already cast its shadow on the manger in Bethlehem. This was foretold by the poor stable where the Child wailed, by the prophecy of Simeon on the sign of contradiction and the sword that would pierce the Virgin’s soul, and by Herod’s persecution which made the flight to Egypt necessary.

It is not surprising that upon reaching adult age the Child should call on his disciples to follow him on the path of the Cross with total trust and faithfulness.

Drawn by His example and sustained by His love, many Christians from the dawn of the Church bore witness to their faith with their blood. Others have followed the first martyrs across the centuries until now.

How not to see that, even in our times and in various parts of the world, being Christian requires a martyr’s heroism? How not to recognise that everywhere, even where there is no persecution, living the Gospel coherently carries a high price.”

Contemplating the divine Child in Mary’s arms and looking at the example of St Stephen, let us ask God to grant us the grace of living our faith coherently, always ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks us for a reason for our hope (cf 1 Pt, 3: 15).