Feast of St. Stephen, First Martyr
Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59
With the glorious celebration of Christmas so fresh in our minds and hearts, the Church abruptly shifts our focus from cradle to Christian death. Each December 26th we celebrate together the Feast Day of St. Stephen.
At my parish church, there is a beautiful stained glass window depicting the Nativity. The window shows the Magi joining shepherds, sheep and oxen, paying homage to the newborn Christ Child. What makes this vibrant window unique, however, is that the infant Jesus has his arms stretched out as if on the cross and the palms of his tender little hands bear the marks of his future crucifixion. This window reminds us that the future of this newborn King will involve suffering and death. Indeed, the stained glass window foretells the Passion-our ultimate experience as Christians. As Christians, born of the Spirit, we are taught not only how to live, preach and witness our faith, but our Christian community also teaches us how to die. By embracing this faith journey, we move ever closer to our eternal life in Christ.
Today’s Feast of St. Stephen provides us with a holy witness to this mission of death and new life. St. Stephen was clearly an inspiration to the early Christian community who suffered great persecutions. While you and I may not relate to his martyrdom by torture (or so we hope!), we can relate to St. Stephen’s life, mission and example. According to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Stephen had been commissioned to take bold action to care for those in need. He worked wonders, and his proclamation of the Good News was filled with the Holy Spirit. Stephen verbally challenged the religious authorities and his prophetic speech got him in great trouble-it cost him his life.
We too must trust that the Holy Spirit will support us as we serve and support our community, and as we boldly speak out-even at the cost of upsetting authorities. Like Stephen, it is our call to proclaim in word and actions the hope revealed in Jesus Christ. St. Stephen was stoned to death for his bold witness. Despite the cruelty of his brutal murder, St. Stephen prayed to the end for those who tortured him. As he died, he verbally turned his spirit over to the Lord. It is important to note that Paul (then Saul) heard St. Stephen pray to his death. How could St. Paul ever forget this witness of Stephen? He too would follow in Stephen’s footsteps.
While you and I may not be stoned literally, there are times when we are stoned by others’ harsh words, cruel actions or unjust accusations. At these times, how willing are we to forgive our enemies and pray for them? And, like St. Stephen, would it not be wonderful to leave this world proclaiming aloud "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." St. Matthew clearly has it right as he writes, "whoever endures to the end will be saved." Let us live in this hope!
And…so the Christmas Season begins!
Angela Howell is a retreatant and volunteer at Mater Dolorosa Passionists Retreat Center in Sierra Madre, California.