St. Stephen, Martyr
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans
I hope you're not surprised that we are celebrating the martyrdom of Stephen the day after we celebrated the incarnation of the Word in the birth of Jesus Christ. Yes, it's a bit weird that we draw ourselves away from the frolicking fun of the Nativity in order to take solemn note of the Church's first death by stoning. Yes, it is a bit morose for us to turn our attention toward a bloody execution and remind ourselves—after a day's worth of feasting, gift-giving, and family time—that there was a dark promise delivered along with the Baby Jesus. Stephen is the embodiment of that dark promise, and we remember him and his death not to harsh the buzz of Christmas but rather to prepare ourselves for the consequences of Christ's birth. What consequences are those? When the life-giving light of the Christ entered the world through our Blessed Mother, the world's darkness drew back and its soldiers furiously blinked in surprise and disgust. Now, a day later, they've regain their senses and readied themselves for a new battle. For them, Stephen was the first casualty in this war, the first victory for their side. Praying with Mary, Joseph, and the Christ-child in his crib, we know better. Stephen's death was our victory; his death at the hands of our enemies was a divine promise fulfilled.
If Christ's birth into the world of men frightened the forces of darkness, putting them on alert to the fact that their days are numbered, then those who follow Christ are just as frightening. Unable to do battle with God Himself, the armies of deceit and destruction will settle for laying waste to the lives of those of us who pick up the cross and follow Christ. Am I being a little too dramatic here? Maybe. Luke reports in Acts that certain members of a local synagogue debated Stephen, and he won against them b/c he was filled with the Holy Spirit. When they heard him praise God “they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. . .they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together.” Did they insist on a respectful dialogue? Or suggest a inter-religious prayer meeting? No. “They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.” So vile to their hearing was Stephen's praise that they murdered him. Stephen must've said something horribly insensitive or intolerant or divisive. What did he say to these men that provoked their murderous rage? He said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” And for this Stephen was beaten to death with rocks. Christ's dark promise to his Church is fulfilled: "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. . .”
Following the light of Christ comes with a promise of eternal life. Not as a reward for doing the right thing but as a consequence of setting aside failure, anger, and revenge, and embracing the liberating power of mercy granted in love. We are free b/c the Son of God was born a Man and died a Man. And when the appointed time came, he was raised from death to sit at the right hand of his Father. He opened for us the way to peace. For the Enemy and his allies, even the chance that God's children might be free is almost too much to bear. That we are in fact free provokes a murderous rage. In the face of this rage we have only one credible response: preach the truth of God's freely offered mercy; love those who hate us; and endure to the end. This was Stephen's victory, and it is ours as well if we persevere in holiness.
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