St. Stephen: Remembering the First Martyr

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom he is pleased,” sang the heavenly hosts to the shepherds on the night of our Savior’s birth, giving us our first Christmas carol (a doxology). The angels bade the shepherds to throw away their fear and make haste to seek the child, the Messiah, who lay in a manger that night, wrapped in swaddling clothes. The angels here establish one of the gifts Christ makes available to mankind: peace. But this gift is conditional. As our Holy Father pointed out in his Christmas Eve homily, peace on earth among men is inextricably linked to the majesty of God on High. “Where God is not glorified, where he is forgotten or even denied,” there is no peace among men. But how can mere mortals offer even remotely fitting praise to God, the Father Almighty? How does creation approach its Creator? The Incarnation of Our Lord gives us a way to do just that.

In the mystery of the Incarnation, God becomes “God-with-us:” Emmanuel. It is only because He shared in our humanity that we are able to share in His divinity and receive His grace, for no one comes to the Father except through the Son (John 14:6). It is the Christ child who will bring about both glory to God in the highest and peace on earth among men.

Throughout the Gospels Christ reassures us of this promise, and the seventh Beatitude tells us that those who collaborate with God in making peace among men are blessed, for they will be called the children of God. But the worldly (this includes us when we’re thinking that way) tend to think of peace in political terms for humanity and personal terms for oneself. For humanity, peace means a stable situation and the lack of war, crime, violence, and the like. For oneself, peace means getting what we want and not having to suffer.

But Christ did not come to bring this kind of peace: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). The peace that Christ promises us is a peace derived from our relationship with Him as mediator, as the one who allows us to know and praise God the Father. It is peace which passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7). It is the peace of the Prince of Peace. The worldly definitions of peace are negative: we talk about the lack of strife and the absence of suffering. But the peace the angels sing about is positive: it consists of blessedness, and it revolves around the presence of a person, and that person is our Savior. Worldly peace speaks first and foremost to the temporal, animal part of our nature; the peace of Christ speaks first and foremost to the eternal, spiritual part of out nature.

Notice that Christ did not promise us an easy life or lasting political peace. He did not say our life would be without trials and tribulations if we just follow Him. Rather, He tells us that if the world persecuted Him, then they surely will persecute us (John 15:20). It is fitting, then, that every year on December 26, the day after Christmas, the Church celebrates the martyrdom of one for whom these words rang gloriously true: that of St. Stephen the Protomartyr.

Acts 6 tells us that Stephen was one of seven men chosen by the apostles to care for the temporal welfare of some of the poorer members of the early Church.  He was “a man full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost” who was known for his remarkable oratorical skill and sound logic, both of which helped him preach the Good News to the Greek-speaking residents of Jerusalem. When Stephen won a dispute with a certain group of Jews (“called that of the Freedmen, and…Cyrenians…Alexandrians and…those from Cilicia and…Asia”) and wounded their pride, they decided to accuse him of blaspheming against God and the prophet Moses. Stephen’s enemies bribed witnesses to testify against him and, despite his able defense, he was ultimately condemned to death by stoning. A young Jew from Tarsus named Saul, soon to become Paul the apostle, was in the crowd that day. One wonders if he heard Stephen’s final and simple prayer, and what he thought of it: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

Stephen’s zeal for the Kingdom of God led him to preach peace among men, but it didn’t lead to worldly peace. If his life was lived in accord with the seventh Beatitude, his death reminds us of the eighth: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:10).

Tags » , , ,

Related posts