26Dec 26th December. Saint Stephen, the First Martyr

1st Reading: Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59

The martyrdom of the deacon, Stephen, according to Luke.

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: Matthew 10:17-22

Jesus warns his apostles about their possible martyrdom.

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.”

bible

Lord, please don’t blame them!

When king Joash had the priest Zechariah put to death by stoning, the priest’s last words were a curse, “May the Lord see and avenge!” (2 Chron 24:22) Contrast this curse to the dying words of Saint Stephen: “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” The old priest’s final cry for vengeance we can readily understand, since crimes of violence and injustice cry out to heaven for vengeance. Remember what God said to Cain after the murder of Abel: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” And the blood of how many innocent people has stained the earth since then, mingled with the blood of Abel, all pleading to God for justice!

In light of this normal human response, we can only be amased at Saint Stephen’s words, asking God to pardon his killers. Here was a man whose only crime was to speak a truth that his hearers did not want to hear. As a result, a frenzied mob condemned him to a cruel death, by stoning. Under a rain of rocks that crushed his bones, Stephen commended his spirit to Jesus, and with his last breath pardoned his murderers.

How do we get from “May God punish them!” to Stephen’s “pardon them, Lord!” 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 foretold that those sent out to speak his message will not be welcomed or honoured. Instead, they will be ridiculed or chased from one town to another and some will even be killed. One would expect his next words to be words of woe and warning. Instead, they are words of divine mercy: “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…”

“Father, forgive!” Jesus himself prayed from the cross; he knew what it was to suffer unjustly, be betrayed, abandoned, ridiculed and mocked, scourged, and nailed to the cross. His blood did not cry out to heaven for vengeance. Instead, it cried out to God for mercy. Unconquered by hatred, Jesus conquered hatred with love — and so did Stephen, the first of many Christian martyrs, who echoed those saving words: “Father, forgive!”

***

The power of example

In the account of the death of Stephen we heard the first reference to Saul in the Acts of the Apostles. The one who would later become great missionary Saint Paul was present at the death of Stephen and entirely approved of the killing. Saul would go on to become the great apostle to the Gentiles. Perhaps the courageous witness of Stephen left some kind of impression on Saul and sowed a seed which would later bear much fruit. God may have touched Saul in some way through the witness of Stephen. We need each other’s witness. Our faith is strengthened by the witness of others, just as it is weakened by the lack of witness of others. One aspect of Stephen’s witness was his willingness to forgive his enemies. His final words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen’s willingness to forgive his executioners echoed Jesus’ own willingness to forgive those who crucified him. In this way, both Jesus and Stephen revealed something of God’s willingness to forgive each of us. Stephen’s death revealed something of God. If we witness to our faith in such a way that we reveal something of God, then God will certainly touch the lives of others through us.