The feast of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, falls the day after Christmas -  timing that contains an important spiritual lesson, Pope Francis said Wednesday.

"It might seem strange to approach the memory of St. Stephen at the birth of Jesus because the contrast between the joy of Bethlehem and the drama of Stephen, stoned in Jerusalem in the first persecution against the nascent Church, emerges," Pope Francis said Dec. 26.

"In reality it is not so, because the Child Jesus is the Son of God made man, who will save humanity by dying on the cross," he continued.

In a special weekday Angelus address for the feast day, Pope Francis connected the imagery of the child Jesus in the crib to his burial after the crucifixion.

"We contemplate him wrapped in swaddling clothes in the crib; after his crucifixion he will be wrapped again with bandages and placed in a sepulcher," the pope said.

The Acts fo the Apostles recounts St. Stephen's martyrdom - witnessed by St. Paul before his conversion - at the hands of those who refused to accept Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
Pope Francis praised St. Stephen's trust in the Lord and prayerful forgiveness of his murderers at the moment of his death.

"Stephen imitated Jesus at the extreme moment of the cross is forgiveness. He does not curse his persecutors, but prays for them: 'He bent his knees and cried out with a loud voice,'  Lord, do not charge them for this sin," he said.

This act of forgiveness "enlarges the heart" and gives an example of how to live out our interpersonal relationships in our families, at school, at work, in our parish, and other communities, Francis explained.

"Forgiveness is cultivated through prayer that allows us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Stephen was able to forgive his killers because, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked to the sky with his eyes open to God," he said.

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The pope encouraged Catholics to follow St. Stephen's example by abandoning oneself in the hands of the Lord in moments of suffering.

"Our existence is marked not only by happy circumstances, but also by moments of difficulty and loss. But trust in God helps us to accept those moments and to live them as an opportunity for growth in the faith and building new relationships with the brothers," he explained.

"We must pray insistently on the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us the gift of fortitude … to always forgive," Pope Francis said.