December 26, 2020

St. Stephen, Christmas Martyrdom, and Trying Something New

St. Stephen, Christmas Martyrdom, and Trying Something New
Icon of St. Stephen

Today is the Feast of St. Stephen, deacon and first martyr. In his homily this morning, Fr. Robert (at St. Peter’s in Covington) noted the echoes of Jesus’ death that we find in the story of St. Stephen’s martyrdom. “Father forgive them…” “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” In the gospel we hear Jesus telling us not to worry about what we are to say when we are given over to our persecutors… the Spirit himself will give us the words to speak in that moment. At first glance, it might seem strange to find talk of persecution and martyrdom right here at the beginning of the Christmas Season, but it is thoroughly appropriate. It is no accident the we celebrate the first martyr on this 2nd Day of Christmas. The birth of the Christ Child was surrounded by death and violence… both in the oppression of the Holy People of God and in the coming Slaughter of the Innocents (that we celebrate on December 28). If violence and death surrounded Jesus, how can we expect anything different? St. Paul refers to Jesus as the head of his body, the Church. As the head is treated, so is his body.

In the gospels, we were never promised prosperity or worldly peace. We were never promised a life of ease. If we are made in the image and likeness of God… if Jesus is the image of the invisible God… and the purpose of our life is to be conformed to the image of Christ Jesus, then a painless life of ease is something that we should not expect. With Jesus as our model, from his conception to his death, we see clearly that suffering is our lot. But it shouldn’t be a suffering that depresses us, rather a suffering that transforms us into him who is our model and savior. Jesus freely embraced the cross and told us to do the same. It is this embracing, this surrender, that transforms our suffering into sweetness, that transforms us into true Christians… little Christs.

As we begin this Christmas Season, this is the question that I ask myself: how well do I suffer? I can look back over my life and see that I haven’t always suffered well at all. For most of my life, I railed against suffering… not the suffering of others, mind you, but against my own suffering. By God’s grace, progress has been made. At 50 years old, I have finally opened myself up to the grace of being present in the present moment. Not every moment. But many more moments more consistently than in the previous 49 years. Looking back, I see that I am most often the cause of my own misery. Because I wasn’t happy with some aspect of myself or my life… because I couldn’t accept some aspect of myself or my life… because I longed for some aspect of myself or my life to be different than it was. For my life to not be perfect will inevitably cause suffering, but it need not cause misery. Misery is self-inflicted. Suffering embraced is transformative. So, I ask myself again: how well do I suffer?

Perhaps this is a question you might ask yourself too.

As we start this new liturgical season, I am trying something new. Twelve years ago, I started The Catholic Foodie, regularly writing and podcasting about food and faith. My older children grew up in The Catholic Foodie environment, and they often reflect on how much it has impacted their lives. Their love of cooking, the importance of family meals, their desire to connect with others and grow friendships… these were all aspects of lives dedicated to food and faith, to hospitality and service. The last few years I have written and podcasted less frequently. I’m still on local radio once a week for 15 minutes, and up until June of this year I was still writing my monthly column Savoring Sundays for Catholic Digest. In June, Catholic Digest ended their print publication. And with that, my column came to an end. Now I am trying something new. I don’t really know what to call it yet. But I want to renew my dedication to writing regularly, ideally daily. I will post here on and also via a new platform called Substack (to which you can subscribe to receive it in your inbox, and the posts will be archived online, too, at jeff My hope is that what I write about will resonate with you and pull you into conversation with me and with other readers. The content will be more personal, and more of a spiritual nature. This new endeavor will give me a freedom to write beyond the borders of food and recipes, but I’m sure I will include some of those from time to time as well.

I recently came across a quote from the Introduction to a book entitled Abundance of Love by Archbishop Joseph Raya, a Melkite Catholic bishop (who is now deceased, I believe). He lived for a time with the Madonna House community. The book was originally published in 1989. This quote helps to illuminate what I hope to do here with this renewed dedication to regular writing:

“At this point of our history it is imperative to communicate with each other, to be in personal relation, to uncover and discover the most intimate secrets of our lives. Imperative also to share our religious experiences in the infinite love that God has for his creation. All of us human beings yearn to share both the fever of our insecurities and the glory of our personalities. Presidents, political giants, as well as artists and actors, share their ‘confessions’ in a new literary form called ‘memoirs.’

“Our Lord shared his ‘memoirs’ also. The holy and divine Gospel Book is the gift of himself to the world.”

It’s about the process and structure of the gospels as much as the content. What was the process and structure of the gospels… of all of scripture if not the constant invitation of a loving God who is All Good to us his children to enter wholeheartedly into relationship with him? In a small way, I want to shed light publicly on how I strive to respond privately to this invitation… all in the hope that this memoir will draw others to embrace the same invitation from Our Good God who is the Master and Lover of Mankind.