16 April 2013. Tuesday in the Third Week of Easter
Acts 7:51-8:1ff. Stephen’s bitter criticism stirs up the mob, who put him to death by stoning.
Jn 6:30ff. My Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
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.
The impact of a Martyrdom
In presenting the martyrdom of St. Stephen, in Acts, Luke carefully models the death scene of Stephen upon Jesus’ death on the cross. Each, accused of blasphemy, is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin. 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, where Jesus is paralleled to Moses. While each brings bread from heaven, the manna promised by Moses perished by the next day and stopped appearing once the Israelites had 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.
At first the actual events seem to contradict this promise of life. Jesus died on the cross, and Stephen was the first martyr of Christian history. The last moments of Stephen, dying under a hail of stones, seemed anything but glorious and joyful. Yet such a death turns into a moment of triumph and entry into eternal life. And although that day saw the beginning of a persecution of the church in Jerusalem and soon afterwards, Saul began to harass the Church, later the impact of Stephen’s death surely was a factor in Saul’s conversion.
Stephen did not answer anger with anger, nor did he match frustration with frustration. He rose above the violence by the strength which he absorbed from Jesus. With calm self-possession he reasoned forcefully with those who summoned him to trial. He could recognize God’s providence and design where everyone else was caught in anger, frustration and violence. Stephen remained in possession of himself because he had surrendered himself to the spirit and guidance of Jesus.
We have a source of strength to survive anything life may send. 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.