Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartyr

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

St. Stephen, the first martyr, knew the pain of dying! Stoning someone who is young and healthy isn’t easy. The job doesn’t get done with the first few rocks. It’s a long business and a hard way to die.

But St. Stephen also knew the happiness of dying. “Look,” he exclaimed, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).  Jesus had said, “… you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God.” But at Stephen’s martyrdom Jesus isn’t sitting, he stands up, as if to encourage his disciple and to cheer him on like a runner in a race. We fear the pain of dying, but saints teach us about the happiness of dying.

In Book Three of St. Gertrude the Great’s Revelations, she records a promise of Christ concerning the moment of death: Christ says, “When I behold anyone in agony who has thought of me with pleasure, or performed any works deserving reward, I appear at the moment of death with a countenance so full of love and mercy that one repents from the inmost heart for ever offending me, and is saved by this repentance.

When my sister, Mary Frances, was dying of cancer her agony was prolonged week after week. She seemed to struggle with unseen forces, even the powers of darkness.  She labored for three months with episodes of near-death and then she would pull through. It was hard to understand why such a good woman was suffering so greatly the pain of dying.  But in a letter I received afterwards from one of her friends I learned that my sister had offered her suffering for the sake of a friend’s son who had fallen away from the faith. She turned the pain of dying into an act of love and intercessory prayer, just like Jesus and St. Stephen did.   

Isn’t that what we find so powerful in the example of St. Stephen’s martyrdom? He was a warrior, not against those stoning him, but against principalities and the powers of darkness. St. Stephen turned his agony into a prayer by asking forgiveness for those stoning him. His dying was also the moment of his greatest act of love.

       

 

Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartyr

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

Joachim of Fiore, a 12th century Cistercian abbot taught that the history of the world is comprised of three ages, that of the Old Testament, ruled over by the Father who was vengeful and inspired fear in his children, the second age commencing with the revelation of the Son, the New Testament and the founding of the Catholic Church, and a Third Age, yet to come, which will be the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit who will introduce a new dispensation of universal love, derived from the gospel of Jesus Christ, but transcending it and, indeed, transcending Christ himself. In this third and final age, all humanity will order and rule itself in spontaneous cooperation with the Spirit of love and without the assistance of any disciplinary institutions or practices. Though these teachings were long ago recognized as irreconcilable with the teaching of Christ
and his church, this idea of a “Third Age” of the world, inspired by Christ but somehow surpassing and dispensing with Christ, and his church has proved resilient and keeps coming back,and there are signs it may be gaining currency among people today.

Witness the recent phenomenon of the “professional celebrant”. People disaffected by representatives of the institutional church, Planning a funeral for a loved one, and who don't want a minister interfering can hire a “professional celebrant” instead. This person is not a minister, belongs to no church, has had no substantive formation in any faith tradition, and is simply at the family's service to help plan and execute whatever sort of event they would like. The job of a professional celebrant is to preside over an event in which the sensibilities of no one will be offended, and that's not easy. A website advertising the services of a professional celebrant quotes her as saying at a funeral, speaking on behalf of the deceased: “And now I am contented that my life it was worthwhile, knowing as I passed along the way, I made somebody smile.” Efforts to please everyone and offend no one can occasionally lead the professional celebrant to say what is not true, as in another poem featured on the same website: “Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow,I am the diamond's glint on snow. Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there. I did not die.”

Unfortunately, these well-intentioned efforts can result in verbal platitudes make it difficult for all of us to believe that God might actually speak through a human being. The truth is, a man can speak as God. We have this assurance from Jesus himself in today's gospel who says plainly: “Do not worry what you are to say to the judge, it is God who will speak in you.” How fitting that, on this day after the birth of God in the flesh we should be commemorating a saint who is described as standing before a judge and speaking as God speaks. This is not the voice of a “thousand winds”, this is not “a glint of light on the snow” we hear talking to us. When Stephen speaks, we hear the voice of the living God who says of himself, in the book of Isaiah: “I do not speak in secret from somewhere in a land of darkness. I am the Lord. I speak the truth. I declare what is right.” And so, at his trial, we hear Stephen say: “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One, and you have betrayed and murdered the Righteous One himself!” Having effectively offended the sensibilities of just about everyone present, Stephen is promptly stoned to death, but his voice resounds in the church on this day after Christmas, and will not be stilled until our Lord has returned in glory at the end of human history.

On this day after God's being born in the flesh, let us commit ourselves with renewed fervor to the person of Jesus Christ who is the word of God incarnate, and may this Word made flesh be incarnate in our speech and actions as witnesses of Christ in the world.

Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartyr

[Scripture Readings: Acts: 6: 8-10, 7: 54-60; Mt. 10: 17-22]

As Advent is the season of expectation and hope, so Christmas is the season of fulfillment; or more correctly, the beginning of fulfillment. The fulfillment of Advent continues until the final coming of Christ. Our longings and expectations are many and varied, but one of the longings which most of us share is a longing for freedom. Of course, we express this longing in a variety of ways. We may long for freedom from economic or social constraints; or perhaps freedom from an illness or a character defect. We may long for freedom from fear and anxiety. We could easily come up with a long list of freedoms from, but do we give sufficient attention to what we are to use our freedom for? Freedom can be both used and abused.

Today’s feast presents us with examples of both the use and the abuse of freedom. Because of Christ’s coming in the flesh, Stephen had the freedom to hear and accept God’s good news of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the power of the Holy Spirit he was free to proclaim God’s word, even in face of opposition. His adversaries also had the opportunity to hear the good news, but they abused their freedom and closed their ears and their hearts to Stephen’s message. They chose instead to remain in the slavery of hatred and anger. Even in the face of their anger and rejection Stephen was free, in imitation of Christ, to forgive those who wanted to destroy him and what he stood for.


What about you and me? We have heard God’s word of truth that sets us free. We have received the Spirit of freedom into our hearts. We are all called to witness to God’s word; not necessarily in preaching, but certainly in our lives. The opposition most of us face is more diffuse and ambiguous than what was presented in this morning’s readings. It is present in our cultural milieu: the entertainment media, our various social environments, the values that are considered to constitute success and the good life. These are not all bad; nevertheless they contain elements that contradict the gospel. The Spirit teaches us to discern what is valuable in our milieu from what keeps us in slavery, and the Spirit strengthens us so that we can persevere in the face of opposition from others and in the face of discouragement with ourselves.

Freedom is not something that we have once and for all and then no longer need to be concerned about. Freedom is a process that brings us to maturity in Christ. In the meantime we can grow in freedom, or we can loose it along the way. In one way or another we choose either the way of freedom that leads to life, or the way of slavery that leads to stagnation and eventually to death. In gratitude for God’s gift of himself to us this Christmas let us accept our freedom and persevere in the way of life.

Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartyr

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

In an 18th century poem by Alexander Pope, a dying Christian addresses his soul in these words:

      Vital spark of heav’nly flame!
      Quit, O quit this mortal frame:
      Trembling, hoping, ling’ring, flying,

      O the pain, the bliss of dying!

      Cease, fond Nature, cease thy strife,

      And let me languish into life
. 1

St. Stephen, the first martyr, knew the pain of dying! Stoning someone who is young and healthy isn’t easy. The job doesn’t get done with the first few rocks. It’s a long, hot business. To prepare for it they strip off their outer garments while someone watches over their clothes. It’s a hard way to die. As one critic said on his deathbed, “If this is dying, then I don’t think much of it.2

But St. Stephen also knew the bliss of dying. “Look,” he exclaimed, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Jesus said, “… you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God.” But at Stephen’s martyrdom Jesus stands up, as if to encourage his disciple and to cheer him on like a runner in a race. We fear the pain of dying, but the saints teach us there is also bliss. In the poem, the dying Christian expresses it this way:

      The world recedes; it disappears!

      Heav’n opens on my eyes! my ears

      With sounds seraphic ring!

      Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!

      O Grave! where is thy victory?

      O Death! where is thy sting?
1

Like St. Stephen, St. Therese of Lisieux knew the pain and bliss of dying. In her final agony she suffered greatly. “Her face was flushed, her hands purple, and her feet were as cold as ice. She was shivering …huge beads of perspiration stood out on her forehead and rolled down her cheeks. It became increasingly difficult for her to breathe … she uttered little cries.” Then, “Suddenly her eyes came to life and were fixed on a spot just a little above the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Her face took on the appearance it had when Therese enjoyed good health. She seemed to be in ecstasy. This look lasted for the space of a Creed. Then she closed her eyes and expired, a mysterious smile on her lips.3 We expect the pain. May we also hope for the bliss of dying?

In Book Three of St. Gertrude the Great’s Revelations, she records a promise of Christ concerning the moment of death: He says, “When I behold anyone in agony who has thought of me with pleasure, or performed any works deserving reward, I appear at the moment of death with a countenance so full of love and mercy that one repents from the inmost heart for ever offending me, and is saved by this repentance.” As Alexander Pope expresses it in his poem: “Heav’n opens on my eyes! My ears with sounds seraphic ring!

When my brother, Dan, died three years ago of lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain, he was in a coma for the last three days of his life, from Christmas to Dec. 28th. My sister, Kay, recorded his last moments. She writes, “[In his final weeks] he was in his hospital bed in the living room, so he would be in the center of activity and could look out at the beautiful view of Pauma Valley, CA. I had been watching closely as I knew it was going to be any time. Finally I saw a change and I called everyone over. Then Dan, in his coma, lifted his arm and pointed to something he was seeing. His eyes were closed but his face was radiant. What a gift that was for us. … it was wonderful.” “O the pain, the bliss of dying…The world recedes; it disappears!.. Lend, lend your wings!  I mount!   I fly!1

The following year my sister, Mary Frances, also died of cancer. Her dying was much more difficult and her agony prolonged week after week. She seemed to struggle greatly with unseen forces, even the powers of darkness. We asked what was happening when she seemed so agitated and she replied, “If you saw what I saw you wouldn’t believe it.” She labored for three months with episodes of near death and then she would pull through. It was very hard to understand why such a good woman was suffering so greatly the pain of dying. In a letter I received a few days ago I learned for the first time that Mary Frances had offered her process of dying for the sake of a friend’s son who had fallen away from the faith. She turned the pain of dying into an act of love.

Isn’t that what we find so powerful in the example of St. Stephen’s martyrdom? He was a warrior, not against those stoning him, but against principalities and the powers of darkness. St. Stephen turned the pain of dying into an act of love by asking forgiveness for those stoning him. He turned pain into grace, and grace turned into bliss for Paul, his persecutor, who saw the blinding light of Christ and began to love him. Dying can be the moment of our greatest act of love.

      O the pain, the bliss of dying!
      Cease, fond Nature, cease thy strife.
      And let me languish into life.

      The world recedes; it disappears!

      Heav’n opens on my eyes! my ears

      With sounds seraphic ring!

Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartyr

[Scripture Readings: Acts 6: 8-10, 7: 54-60; Mt. 10: 17-22]

It is hardly necessary to say that celebrating the martyrdom of St. Stephen the day after Christmas introduces a jarring note into the joy and peace of the Christmas season. So will the Feast of the Holy Innocents on Monday. It is a reminder of Jesus’ saying: “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” As Simeon predicted when Jesus was presented in the temple the baby we now think of as lying in the manger at Bethlehem will be a sign of contradiction and he will be contradicted violently.

St. Stephen followed completely in the way of Christ, as have many of Christ’s disciples down through the centuries; not only in his violent death, but in his forgiveness of those who put him to death. Not all the reactions to Jesus and his message of salvation were violent. By and large the reaction of the Scribes and Pharisees was verbal rejection and argumentation. The reaction of many in the crowds that followed Jesus was initial enthusiasm and later falling away. For others the reaction was simply indifference from the beginning. The reaction of his disciples was misunderstanding, desertion and for Judas betrayal. Only after Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over death came faith and their willingness to follow Jesus, whatever the cost.

When we look around at our own society and the world at large, are the reactions to the Word of God’s entrance into human history all that much different now than they were two thousand years ago? There are those today who follow Jesus in the way of martyrdom. For most of us when we witness to the gospel message and Christian way of life the reaction of many of our contemporaries is more likely to be indifference or argumentation; or perhaps some subtle or not so subtle form of rejection. Nevertheless we are called to persevere in a spirit of compassion and forgiveness of those who are indifferent to our message, or who try to discourage us or discredit us in different ways. The opposition we face may seem small in comparison to martyrdom. Nevertheless it is Christ’s call to us to follow him in the way of misunderstanding and rejection.

As contemporary hearers of Jesus’ words we would do well to ask ourselves what our own reactions are. Do we go beyond hearing and reading and thinking about them, and put the gospel message into practice? Our reactions may not be violent, but indifference and half-heartedness can also be deadly. Saul did not take an active part in stoning Stephen. He simply stood by and watched. If we find ourselves in a similar position in regard to those who are suffering for the sake of the gospel, let us pray that Christ will lead us further on the way of conversion and allow us to share in St. Paul’s and St. Stephen’s enthusiasm to spread the gospel and their willingness to suffer for it.

Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartyr

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

As we journey through life we travel more securely with the help of other Christians, including our patron Saints in heaven. Like St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, St. Thomas More for attorneys, St. Joan of Arc for soldiers. Accountants have St. Matthew the tax collector, florists have St. Therese the Little Flower, pilots and astronauts have St. Joseph of Cupertino who could fly from tree to tree. And deacons have St. Stephen, who was stoned to death for his witness to Christ. I wonder who was responsible for also naming Stephen as the patron saint of brick layers and those who suffer from migraine headaches!

Like St. Stephen, Christians today often live among some unbelieving relatives and friends. Karl Rahner writes about being divided from those we love in what is most intimate and important to us-our faith.1 The sight of how little the name of Christ is known and reverenced after two thousand years weighs on our hearts. But when this weight comes from persons who are dear to us, whom we love, to whom we are bound with ties of blood, of shared feelings, of life and destiny, it calls forth our deepest compassion and concern for their salvation. Such divisions are even more painful when driven by great fervor and conviction on both sides for incompatible positions of belief.

Stephen and Saul of Tarsus clashed in exactly that way: Stephen was zealous for Jesus, Saul was zealous for Judaism. They were about the same age and probably argued with each other in the synagogue. They could even have been friends when they disagreed about Jesus. The differences between Stephen and Saul would have been more painful if they shared a mutual affection for one another. I have often wondered why Saul stood back, merely guarding the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death, but not throwing a single stone himself. Was it because he would not lift a hand against his friend? Perhaps it was all he could endure to even watch his companion suffer such a cruel death without doing anything to prevent it, even reluctantly approving it. And afterward, when the deed was done, when Saul began ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women, and committing them to prison, was his rage against Christians fueled not only by his love of Judaism, but also by his resentment against Jesus who created such division in families and between friends?

It is often easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a relative or a friend. Saul could not forgive Stephen for identifying Jesus as the “Lord,” a title belonging to God alone. But Stephen forgave Saul and the others who stoned him. Stephen’s cry of love must have echoed painfully over and over in Saul’s heart. But after Saul’s conversion, Stephen’s act of love would have given him great consolation and the assurance that their friendship will continue forever. St. Luke writes that Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel. Luke was not there, how did he know that, unless it was a precious memory St. Paul shared with him about his friend and their mutual love for Jesus?

Like the early Church, some believers in our world have to live in places that are very hostile to Christianity and its values. Yesterday, terror attacks in Nigeria killed 39 Christians, most of them dying on the steps of St. Theresa’s Catholic Church after celebrating Christmas Mass. They are today’s martyrs. While we are not challenged by such murderous persecution here, Karl Rahner writes that we are challenged to be witnesses to our unbelieving friends and relations. With today’s loosening of family cohesion it would be easier to become distant from those who do not share our love for Christ. But the example of St. Stephen encourages us to show more love not less, to be more anxious for their salvation, so that our prayers and example might lead them, like St. Paul, to the grace of life in Christ.

For example, a good man wrote to me about his two teen age daughters, twins. One daughter gives him great joy because of her strong faith, her straight A’s in school, her willingness to be helpful, her love. The other causes him great distress because she is rebellious, disrespectful, at war. She rejects the Church and does not believe in God. He tried correcting her by taking away her money, by limiting her freedoms, and by bringing her to counseling. Now she is even more disrespectful and alienated. In view of the great differences in the way his daughters are acting, he asked how he should handle gifts at Christmas, for they don’t deserve to be treated equally. I replied that Christmas reveals God’s love for us, sending us his Son to die for us when we did not deserve it, when we were sinners. Gifts at Christmas shouldn’t be measured by the merits of the receiver, but by the love of the giver, a love that embraces an undeserving, unbelieving friend or relative as Christ embraced us. That is how we hope to draw unbelieving friends and relatives closer to Christ. G. K. Chesterton writes these words of hope: “The moment people cease to pull against the Catholic Church they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it.” 2

Without the witness of St. Stephen, we might never have had a St. Paul. John Kavanaugh writes in America magazine, “We might be more inclined to keep [our beliefs] quietly to ourselves. Faith, we’re told, is a private thing. … So much for martyrs! [Instead] we erect a wall of separation, not between church and state, but between [our] faith and public life.”3 That was not the way of early Christians. May it not be our way either. And remember, if you suffer from migraine headaches and other bodily aches and pains try praying to St. Stephen.