St. Stephen, First Martyr Wednesday, 26th December 2019
Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59 . Matthew 10:17-22
Martyrdom of Stephen: They rushed at him and stoned him.
A drama technique that film directors sometimes use is to follow a quiet sequence with a burst of noise, or a noisy sequence with a period of silence. The sharp contrast strengthens both sequences. That’s what the Church does in today’s liturgy. It follows the tenderness of Jesus’ birth with the violence of Stephen’s death. This heightens our appreciation of both events. Divine tenderness stands in stark contrast to human violence.
It was human violence, like Stephen’s death, that made Jesus take flesh and live among us. He came to transform our violence into his gentleness.
Is our witness to divine tenderness more eloquent than our witness to human violence? Do we scream and shout rather than respond with gentleness? “Learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit.” Matthew 11:29
We are still very much in a festive mood, with Christmas carols like "Silent Night, Holy Night" and "Joy to the world" still ringing in our heads and maybe we are still bloated from all the feasting. Well, today the Church opens up the liturgy with, of all things, the gruesome and shocking martyrdom of St. Stephen. Somehow the tenderness of Christmas is shattered by the violent execution of St. Stephen.
Why didn't the Church move this feast to anytime, maybe in Lent, so that we can still have that soft and warm Christmas feeling and just talk about angels and shepherds and baby Jesus?
Well, the martyrdom St. Stephen has a deep connection with the birth of Christ.
Somehow Christmas have been embellished and glossed over with so much sentimentality that we forget that Jesus was born into a hard, cold and violent world.
The Son of God had to born in stable, of all places, and laid in a manger. Not long after He was born, King Herod was looking for Him to kill Him.
That was only the beginning of the violence and the persecution that Jesus was going to face, and it would eventually lead to His execution of the cross.
Yet when we reflect on the joy of Christmas and the martyrdom of St. Stephen, we see the connection between divine tenderness and human violence.
Christ came to heal our human violence with His divine tenderness, expressed in mercy and forgiveness, as witnessed to by St. Stephen.
Let us also believe that the ugliness of human violence can only be changed with the divine tenderness of forgiveness and love.
The young man by the name of Saul in the 1st reading, who approved of the killing, would later be touched by divine tenderness, then changed his name to Paul and went forth to proclaim the tender love of God and His forgiveness.
So in the face of human anger and violence, let us stand firm on divine love and tenderness.
It is only through God's mercy and forgiveness that hardened hearts will be turned into loving hearts.
ST. STEPHEN, FIRST MARTYR
From the very beginning of its existence, the Church suffered persecution like its founder Jesus. St. Stephen was of Greek pagan origin and highly respected in the young Church of Jerusalem. Like Jesus, he died praying for his persecutors and entrusted himself, even as he died, into the hands of God. He had been one of the seven deacons who assisted the apostles, particularly in the ministry to the poor. He is described in Acts of the Apostles as “filled with faith and with the Holy Spirit” and “full of fortitude.”
Lord, our God, we honor today St. Stephen, the first martyr of your young Church. Make us good witnesses like him, people filled with faith and with the Holy Spirit, men and women who are full of fortitude, as we try to live the life of Jesus. Give us a great trust, that we may live and die in your hands and make us pray for those who harm us, that you may forgive them and us. We ask you this through Christ, our Lord.
– For faithful witnesses, who testify to God and to the values of the Gospel by their life and when necessary by their death, we pray:
– For zealous and compassionate people, who serve their neighbors in their need, we pray:
– For people persecuted because of their faith, that they may keep steadfast in their faith and strong in the Holy Spirit, we pray:
– For deacons in the Church, that God may keep them generous in their ministry of service, we pray:
Prayer over the Gifts:
Lord, our God, we bring before you bread and wine, as we remember how St. Stephen gave food to the hungry. Make us too, ministers of your love, who care for the poor, that no one in our Christian communities may suffer any want. For we try to be one heart and mind in Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Prayer after Communion:
Lord our God, as we celebrate the memory of St. Stephen, take away from us all fear and dispose us to bear witness in all serenity to the death and resurrection of Jesus. May we learn from this martyr to become more like Jesus in what we say and in the way we live. We ask this through Christ, our Lord.
How much Stephen was like Jesus , living in the hands of the Father and dying as he forgave those who were killing him and entrusted himself to God. May God give us such a beautiful faith and bless us, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Commentary: On the day after Christmas, it may seem strange that persecution is our theme. St. Stephen is the church’s first martyr, and his feast is celebrated in immediate proximity to the birth of the Lord whom he served. Not only was a Stephen a grace-filled person, he was also a skilled debater, with the result that his litigants proved to be no match for him.
As happens all too frequently, disagreement turned to violence, with his opponents railing against Stephen. They finally killed him in a classic case of religious zeal gone berserk. Among the opponents is an interesting figure, the young Saul who will soon become Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
Early Christians fared no better than the proto-martyr. The death of Stephen was an omen of things to come. Today’s Gospel presents a picture of what transpired in the latter part of the first century. Cruel torture, public litigation, sharp family division. The followers of Jesus endured all of these things. But Jesus assured them of divine guidance and a future that is certainly theirs. Perseverance spells salvation.
Have this mind in you that was also in Christ Jesus—his reminder of Paul is clearly reflected in the death of Stephen. During his trial, Jesus assured his accusers that they would one day see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven; so Stephen dies with a vision of this eschatological figure. Stephen, like Jesus, dies by surrendering his spirit to God.
The spirit of Christmas is not limited to ornaments and tinsel. Nor even to the peace and calm of the creche. It is the assurance that the child came to suffer that gives us hope, and so, like Stephen, Christ’s surrender must be our own. As we pass through this valley of tears, we are certainly called to suffer. But with Christ’s sentiments as our own we shall surely prevail. And the true spirit of Christmas will never be lost.
Points to Ponder:
Christ the model of tolerance
The assurance of heaven.