Thursday, December 26, 2013

St. Stephen, 1st Deacon and Martyr

St. Stephen, the first Deacon and the Church's first martyr for Christ, whom St. Luke calls "a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost," was stoned to death by order of the Jewish Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, and among those taking part was Saul of Tarsus, the future St. Paul. Stephen's name means "crown," and he was the first disciple of Jesus to receive the martyr's crown. The apostles had found that they needed helpers to look after the care of the widows and the poor. So they ordained seven deacons, and Stephen is the 1st and most famous of these.
God worked many miracles through St. Stephen and he spoke with such wisdom and grace that many of his hearers became followers of Jesus. The enemies of the Church of Jesus were furious to see how successful Stephen's preaching was. At last, they laid a plot for him. They could not answer his wise argument, so they got men to lie about him, saying that he had spoken sinfully against God. St. Stephen faced that great assembly of enemies without fear. In fact, the Holy Bible says that his face looked like the face of an angel.

The saint spoke about Jesus, showing that He is the Savior, God had promised to send. He scolded his enemies for not having believed in Jesus. At that, they rose up in great anger and shouted at him. But Stephen looked up to Heaven and said that he saw the heavens opening and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

His hearers plugged their ears and refused to listen to another word. They dragged St. Stephen outside the city of Jerusalem and stoned him to death. The saint prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" Then he fell to his knees and begged God not to punish his enemies for killing him.

And TODAY ...
Professing the Christian Faith Demands the Heroism of the Martyrs
On the day after the solemnity of Christmas, we celebrate today the feast of St. Stephen, deacon and first martyr. At first glance, to join the memory of the "protomartyr" and the birth of the Redeemer might seem surprising because of the contrast between the peace and joy of Bethlehem and the tragedy of St. Stephen, stoned in Jerusalem during the first persecution against the nascent Church.
In reality, this apparent opposition is surmounted if we analyze in greater depth the mystery of Christmas. The Child Jesus, lying in the cave, is the only-begotten Son of God who became man. He will save humanity by dying on the cross. 

Now we see Him in swaddling clothes in the manger; after His crucifixion, He will again be wrapped in bandages and placed in the sepulcher. It is no accident that the Christmas iconography sometimes represents the divine newborn Child lying in a small sarcophagus, to indicate that the Redeemer was born to die, He was born to give His life in ransom for all.
St. Stephen was the first to follow in the steps of Christ with martyrdom: like the divine Master, he died forgiving and praying for his executioners (cf. Acts 7:60). During the first four centuries of Christianity all the saints venerated by the Church were martyrs. 

They are a countless multitude, which the liturgy calls "the white army of martyrs," (martyrum candidatus exercitus). Their death was not a reason for fear and sadness, but of spiritual enthusiasm, which always gave rise to new Christians. For believers, the day of death, and even more so, the day of martyrdom, is not the end of everything, but rather the "passage" to immortal life, it is the day of the final birth, the "dies natalis." Thus is understood the link that exists between the "dies natalis" of Christ and the "dies natalis" of St. Stephen. If Jesus had not been born on earth, men would not have been able to be born for heaven. Precisely because Christ was born, we are able to be "reborn."
Also Mary, who took the Redeemer in her arms in Bethlehem, suffered an interior martyrdom. She shared His Passion and had to take Him, once again, in her arms when they took Him down from the cross. To this Mother, who felt the joy of the birth and the anguish of the death of her divine Son, we entrust those who are persecuted and those who are suffering, in different ways, for witnessing and serving the Gospel. 

With special spiritual closeness, I am also thinking of the Catholics who maintain their fidelity to the See of Peter without giving in to compromises, at times even at the cost of grave sufferings. The whole Church admires their example and prays that they will have the strength to persevere, knowing that their tribulations are a source of victory, though for the moment they might seem to be a failure.

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