Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartry

Scripture Readings: Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-60; Mt 10:17-22

Twelve years ago, on the day after Christmas, two continental plates under the Indian Ocean suddenly ruptured. For a record breaking ten minutes an enormous earthquake shook the earth, lifting the ocean floor for hundreds of miles, causing a giant tsunami. When this pregnant wave approached shallow waters it swelled up and rolled over the surrounding shores, submerging cities, villages and farms, drowning about two hundred thousand people in its deadly belly.  How quickly the joyful celebration of Christmas was followed the very next day by suffering and death, just like today’s feast of St. Stephen!

In a homily preached by Fr. Ansgar many years ago he said, “The feast of St. Stephen pulls us up short, like a dog tied to a leash. When it dashes across the yard to the end of its chain, all of the sudden, ‘Boing!’ It’s jerked to a stop.”  When I consider the sufferings of St. Stephen and other martyrs I think, “What hope is there for me, because I try to avoid even mild discomfort?”   

There’s an old Indian fable about a mouse that lived in mortal fear of cats. So the medicine man turned the mouse into a cat, but the cat was afraid of dogs. The medicine man turned it into a dog, but the dog was afraid of wolves. So, the medicine man turned it into a wolf, but the wolf was afraid of hunters. Finally the medicine man said to the wolf, “I can do nothing for you because you have the heart of a mouse.” So he turned it back into a mouse.  But in baptism we receive the Heart of Jesus who said, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” (Jn 16:33).

If the martyrdom of St. Stephen pulls us up short, it also shows us the power of grace to overcome our fears. Filled with the Holy Spirit St. Stephen saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  Jesus had said, “…  you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God.” But here Jesus appears to be filled with such excitement he is hardly able to contain himself.  So he stands up to encourage his disciple and to cheer him on like a runner in a race.

That is what Jesus does for us, too, because he has given us his Heart, we are one body with him.  So, after celebrating all the great feasts from Christmas to Pentecost, to Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi we will celebrate the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who is at the center of all these celebrations, and of all our daily acts of love.  It is from the Heart of Jesus that we will receive the courage to overcome our fears and persevere to the end just like St. Stephen.