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On Feast of St. Stephen, Dec. 26

"He Died Forgiving and Praying"

VATICAN CITY, JAN. 2, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered Dec. 26, the feast of St. Stephen, before reciting the midday Angelus with several thousand people gathered in St. Peter's Square.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters:

On the day after the solemnity of Christmas, we celebrate today the feast of St. Stephen, deacon and first martyr. At first glance, to join the memory of the "protomartyr" and the birth of the Redeemer might seem surprising because of the contrast between the peace and joy of Bethlehem and the tragedy of St. Stephen, stoned in Jerusalem during the first persecution against the nascent Church.

In reality, this apparent opposition is surmounted if we analyze in greater depth the mystery of Christmas. The Child Jesus, lying in the cave, is the only-begotten Son of God who became man. He will save humanity by dying on the cross.

Now we see him in swaddling clothes in the manger; after his crucifixion, he will again be wrapped in bandages and placed in the sepulcher. It is no accident that the Christmas iconography sometimes represents the divine newborn Child lying in a small sarcophagus, to indicate that the Redeemer was born to die, he was born to give his life in ransom for all.

St. Stephen was the first to follow in the steps of Christ with martyrdom: like the divine Master, he died forgiving and praying for his executioners (cf. Acts 7:60). During the first four centuries of Christianity all the saints venerated by the Church were martyrs.

They are a countless multitude, which the liturgy calls "the white army of martyrs," (martyrum candidatus exercitus). Their death was not a reason for fear and sadness, but of spiritual enthusiasm, which always gave rise to new Christians. For believers, the day of death, and even more so, the day of martyrdom, is not the end of everything, but rather the "passage" to immortal life, it is the day of the final birth, the "dies natalis." Thus is understood the link that exists between the "dies natalis" of Christ and the "dies natalis" of St. Stephen. If Jesus had not been born on earth, men would not have been able to be born for heaven. Precisely because Christ was born, we are able to be "reborn."

Also Mary, who took the Redeemer in her arms in Bethlehem, suffered an interior martyrdom. She shared his Passion and had to take him, once again, in her arms when they took him down from the cross. To this Mother, who felt the joy of the birth and the anguish of the death of her divine Son, we entrust those who are persecuted and those who are suffering, in different ways, for witnessing and serving the Gospel.

With special spiritual closeness, I am also thinking of the Catholics who maintain their fidelity to the See of Peter without giving in to compromises, at times even at the cost of grave sufferings. The whole Church admires their example and prays that they will have the strength to persevere, knowing that their tribulations are a source of victory, though for the moment they might seem to be a failure.

To all, once again, happy Christmas!

[At the end of the Angelus, the Pope greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

I am happy to greet all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present for this Angelus. Today is the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. His noble death teaches us to be generous of heart, courageous in living our faith and ready to forgive those who harm us.

May your stay on Rome renew your love of Christ and his Church. I wish you all joy and peace in our Lord and a blessed Christmas season!

© Copyright 2006 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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