26 December. Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr
Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59 The martyrdom of Stephen, according to Luke.
Mt 10:17-22: Jesus warns his apostles of their possible martyrdom.
When the renegade king Joash was having the priest Zechariah put to death by stoning, Zechariah’s dying words were, “May the Lord see and avenge!” (2 Chron 24:22) What a contrast to the dying words of St. Stephen: “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” Zechariah’s cry for vengeance we readily understand, for do not all such crimes of violence and injustice cry out to heaven for retribution? We remember God’s own words to Cain after he had killed his brother Abel: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” And the blood of how many of of our fellow men and women has stained the earth since then, mingled with Abel’s blood, all pleading to God for justice!
In that case, what are we to make of St. Stephen’s words, asking God to pardon his killers? Here was a man whose crime was simply to name a harsh truth that his hearers did not want to have spoken. As a result, a frenzied mob condemned him to a cruel death, by stoning. Under the rain of rocks that tore his flesh and crushed his bones, Stephen prayed and commended his spirit to Jesus, and with his final words begged pardon for his murderers. How do we get from Zechariah’s “May God punish them!” to Stephen’s “pardon them, God!” What or who has intervened, to make the difference?
The one who speaks in today’s Gospel reading, that’s who; the Lord Jesus Himself. He made no bones about the fact that those He sends to speak His words will not be welcomed and honored. They will be ridiculed and some will be killed and even crucified, some they will beat, and some will be chased from one town to another. So it happens, said Jesus, that all the blood of the ages from Abel down to Zechariah “comes on you.”
Given such a prediction, one would have expected His next words to be words of woe and warning. Instead, they are words that break open the deep recesses of God’s heart for all to see the mercy that beats there: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. See, your house is left to you desolate.”
This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ; the God who does not like to take “Go away and leave me alone” as the sinner’s final word. Who always hopes for repentance and so in mercy keeps on trying to speak to his people the Word that will shake them up and turn them from their sins and bring them home to Him. This is the good God who when the holy city of Jersualem got hold of his Son Jesus, handed him over to the Romans and took him outside the city gate for execution on the wood of the cross. It was as Jesus was being nailed to the cross that he prayed the words that changed our destiny: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“Father, forgive!” Jesus prayed; he who knew what it was to suffer unjustly, be betrayed by friends, abandoned, ridiculed and mocked, scourged, and nailed to the cross. His was the blood that did not cry out to heaven for vengeance. Instead, here was blood that cried out to God for mercy and for pardon. Unconquered by hatred, Jesus conquered hatred with love. With each drop running down the cross, and pouring from his side with the water as the spear ran him through – with each drop the cry was heard in heaven: “Father, forgive! Father, forgive! Father, forgive!”
First Reading: Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59
Stephen, filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people. Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and people from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.
When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him.
But he, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven
and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,
and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened
and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears,
and rushed upon him together, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.
The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Gospel: Mt 10:17-22
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Beware of men, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues,
and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans.
When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say.
You will be given at that moment what you are to say.
For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child;
children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but whoever endures to the end will be saved.”