ROME – Marking the feast of St. Stephen, which falls on the day after Christmas and commemorates the Church’s first martyr, Pope Francis said the occasion could seem jarring amid the festive spirit of the holidays but, in reality, it reveals the “true meaning of Christmas.”

“In the perspective of faith, today’s celebration is in harmony with the true meaning of Christmas,” he said, noting that according to the Biblical account, just as Stephen was about to die the heavens opened up and he could see a host of angels and saints praising God.

The pontiff also said Thursday’s feast “calls us to remember all the martyrs of yesterday and today,” adding “today there are a lot,” a reference to widespread anti-Christian persecution in the early 21st century.

According to Aid to the Church in Need, a papally-sponsored organization that supports persecuted Christians, some 300 million Christians today live in countries in which religious freedom is at risk. Estimates of the number of Christians killed each year for reasons linked to their faith range from some 8,000 to approximately 100,000, meaning somewhere between one new martyr every hour and one every five minutes.

At the end of his address, Francis added a special reference to the people of the Philippines, struck by a typhoon on Christmas day that has killed at least 16 people.

In Stephen’s martyrdom, Francis said, “violence is overcome by love, death by life: he, in the moment of his supreme witness, contemplates the open heavens and offers forgiveness to his persecutors.”

Thursday’s Angelus closes a three-day marathon of papal Christmas activities, beginning with a nighttime Mass on Christmas Eve, then the recitation of his traditional Christmas Urbi et Orbi blessing on Christmas day, and finally the Angelus address commemorating Saint Stephen’s feast.

On Thursday, Francis said that like Stephen in his moment of death, every Christian must learn “to have their eyes fixed on Jesus” amid daily struggles in order to “account for the hope that has been given to us” on Christmas day.

“For us Christians, heaven is no longer far off, separated from the earth: in Jesus, heaven came to earth,” he said, adding that thanks to Christ’s incarnation, Christians are able to “take everything human and direct it to heaven,” he said.

By doing this, the first witness Christians will give is “precisely our way of being human, a lifestyle shaped according to Jesus: meek and courageous, humble and noble, non-violent and strong.”

Noting that Stephen was among the first deacons in the Church, the pope said his life of teaching through acts of brotherhood and charity, coupled with his martyrdom, is a “a strong source of inspiration” for Christian communities.

These communities, he said, “are called to become increasingly missionary, each striving for evangelization, determined to reach men and women on the existential and geographical peripheries, where there is the most thirst for hope and salvation, communities that do not follow worldly logic, which do not put themselves, their image, at the center, but only the glory of God and the good of the people, especially the little ones and the poor.”

Continuing the holiday season, the pope on New Year’s Eve will pray Vespers in St. Peter’s basilica and will pop out to visit the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, this year made entirely out of sand. On Jan. 1, he will celebrate Mass for the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and his next major liturgical event will be the Jan. 6 Mass for the Epiphany.

He will close out the holiday season with an annual speech to the diplomatic corps and a Mass for the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 12, which he will celebrate in the Sistine chapel and during which he will baptize several infants.

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