The Feast of St. Stephen
[Scripture Readings: Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-60; Mt:17-22]
Needless to say, Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation: the Word of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. During the Christmas season we recognize and celebrate the incarnation of Christ in three ways:
First, we remember the birth of Jesus. We ponder the infancy narratives found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and decorate our homes and churches with Christmas trees and crèches that remind us of the Christ who united heaven and earth in a little town in Palestine over 2000 years ago.
A second way of celebrating the real presence of the Word made Flesh is by what we are doing now in this place and time: celebrating the Eucharist: celebrating Christ’s Mass, that is, Christmas.
And there is a third way we celebrate the incarnation, by honoring witnesses to the presence of God among us. For some, celebrating the death of a martyr on the day after Christmas may seem odd, inappropriate or distasteful. (Even good King Wenceslaus looked down on the feast of Stephen). But this feast is a reminder that the child of Bethlehem grew up, that the wood of the crib became the wood of the cross, and because of the Paschal mystery of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, the body of Christ became the Church.
It was through Stephen and witnesses like him, that the good news of Jesus Christ was heard. It was through Stephen that widows were cared for and poor minorities were given food. It was through Stephen that people experienced the continuing presence of the Christ, most strikingly, in his dying words that honored the last words of Jesus: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Stephen entrusted his spirit to the One who had entrusted to Stephen, Christ’s Body.
During this Christmas season in the waning days of the year 2002, we, the Church, are the incarnation of the Christ. No less than Stephen, we are Christ’s hands, his feet, his mouthpiece. If the word of God is heard today it is because the Church speaks it. If people are forgiven it is because we forgive. If the sick are cared for, the hungry fed, the prisoner visited and the broken-hearted healed it is because the People of God does these things. If the prayer of Jesus is raised up, it is because we, flesh and blood monks, raise it. That is what incarnation is. God becoming flesh. Our flesh. The flesh that embodies the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in this monastery at this time.
And so we continue our celebration of Christmas on this feast of Saint Stephen. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, we celebrate Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, and we celebrate the Church that gives flesh to the real presence of Christ in a little town in Iowa today.
The Feast of St. Stephen
[Scripture Readings: Acts 6:8-10 and 7:54-60, Mt. 10:17-22]
No doubt we should all like to experience what St. Stephen experienced. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, and looking to the sky above he saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. His persecutors, blinded to that marvelous sight, were blinded by their own ignorance, crass ignorance of the Holy Spirit, of God who created them.
We, having the same gift of faith as Stephen, not only can be filled with the Holy Spirit, but we can experience the presence of Jesus on our altar. Yesterday, Christmas day, we rejoiced inasmuch as we celebrated the birth of Jesus and received him in the Eucharist. We receive him again today, and every day.
We might not be able to imitate Stephen’s great faith, but we can try to love those neighbors who are not so easily to love. We can forgive those who persecute us, actually or just as our clouded minds might perceive their words or actions.
The great conversion that was wrought by the grace of God through Stephen’s prayer for Saul and the others can promote within us a deeper perception of the power of the Holy Spirit and promote the conversion not only of those whom we meet daily, but of souls who are going through lives that are filled with vicissitudes of various kinds.
The faith of Stephen, a strong faith surely, brooked no doubting. His was a faith that was built on a firm and intense trust in God. He prayed with conviction: “God will do this, I must leave it in his hands.” May our prayer be filled with a faith that doesn’t ask when or how. For it is such strong faith that can move mountains, even those who are strongly confirmed in their obstinacy, like Stephen’s persecutors. Let us always ask for faith as strong as that of the saints.