24th April. Tuesday of the 3rd Week of Easter
Acts 7:51-8:1ff. Stephen’s bitter criticism stirs up the mob, who put him to death by stoning.
John 6:30ff. My Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
Effects of Martyrdom
In presenting the martyrdom of St. Stephen, Luke carefully models the death scene of Stephen upon Jesus’ death on the cross. Both, accused of blasphemy, are condemned to death by the Sanhedrin. Each sees a vision of someone at the right hand of God, coming on the clouds, a reference to Daniel’s vision in describing the vindication of the martyr saints of Old Testament times (Dan 7:9-14). Each asks God to receive the spirit and each prays for the forgiveness of the executioners (See Luke 22-23).
Another kind of comparison occurs in John’s gospel, Chapter 6. Jesus and Moses stand side by side. While each announces bread from heaven, the manna promised by Moses perished by the next day and stopped appearing once the Israelites crossed the Jordan and settled in the promised land (Josh 5:12). The bread which Jesus provides brings eternal life. It slakes all thirst and satisfies every hunger. Jesus alone offers life which will never end.
Yet, the Acts of the Apostles seems at first to contradict this promise of life. Jesus himself died on the cross, and Stephen becomes the proto-martyr of Christianity. Yet, when death is modeled upon that of Jesus, we know that the highest honor has been bestowed upon a person. Such a death turns into a moment of triumph and glory! The last moments of Stephen, however, seemed anything but glorious and joyful. A pall of sorrow must have descended upon the small Christian community. Luke adds at once, at the beginning of the next chapter of Acts:
“That day saw the beginning of a great persecution of the church in Jerusalem. All except the apostles scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria…. After that, Saul began to harass the Church.”
Some members of the Church must have experienced a profound sense of pain and frustration; they must have been angry at themselves. It was their complaints about the way their widows were being neglected that led to the appointment of the first seven deacons; Stephen was among them. Given this position of authority and visibility within the small Christian community and almost at once because of his ability to draw upon the ancient Scriptures and to speak eloquently, Stephen became the lightning rod that attracted the electricity in the air. It struck him violently and destructively.
Even someone as well meaning as Saul of Tarsus approved of the action against Stephen. As we read in Acts: “Saul, for his part, concurred in the act of killing.” Pain and frustration, anger and confusion, all these emotions surrounded the martyrdom of Stephen.
Stephen himself responded with peace, he was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Even though he was dragged outside the city and a volcano was erupting around him, he prayed that Jesus whom he had seen at God’s right hand would now come to receive him into that heavenly peace. At once Stephen shared that peace with everyone about him. He prayed that his executioners be forgiven.
In other words, Stephen did not answer anger with anger, nor did he match frustration with frustration. He rose above the gloom and violence by the strength which he absorbed from Jesus. This calm self-possession enabled Stephen to reason forcefully with those who summoned him to the court of the Sanhedrin. It enabled him to recognize God’s providence and design where everyone else was caught in regrets, anger, frustration and violence. Where base or unworthy human emotions cut through the lives of people, Stephen remained in possession of himself because he had surrendered that possession to the Lord Jesus.
We too are called to respond with faith. We are expected to remain at peace, even though violence explodes round about us. We do not let others call the shots nor play the tune to which we must dance.
We have a source of strength to survive any desert. From Jesus we receive the food and drink for our soul so that we do not faint from thirst or hunger. Jesus provides this nourishment, like Moses, to us his people as we tramp through the desert. In such a dry stretch of wasteland, we walk more from willpower and desires than from any natural energy. We live by our hopes. We rise above the environment. Our faith preserves us at our best, because we have already surrendered ourselves to Jesus.
First Reading: Acts 7:51-8:1
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.
Gospel: John 6:30-35
So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.