Thursday, December 26, 2013

St. Stephen

It seems a little strange, doesn't it? Yesterday we celebrated Christmas, the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. But today we turn our attention to the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. Unless we look closely at the connection between these two events, we might simply think, “Hmmm...Depressing,” and hurry through today and on to tomorrow's feast of St. John. 

If we stop for a moment, though, to reflect on St. Stephen's story, we can understand why the day after Christmas is a perfect time to celebrate his feast. 

First, let's recall the story of St. Stephen, which we find in Acts 6 and 7. Stephen was one of the first deacons in the early Church. A group of early Christians called Hellenists had been complaining to the apostles that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of charity. The Twelve were pretty sure that if they were going to solve this problem, they would have to delegate some men to help them so they could focus on their task of prayer and preaching. So they chose seven men, including Stephen, to coordinate and oversee the material ministry of the Church. 

Stephen was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). He was also “full of grace and power” and possessed the gift of miracles (Acts 6:8). What's more, he seems to have been an outspoken kind of fellow who was willing and committed to tell the truth no matter what other people thought. 

Not surprisingly, some of the Jews soon began to take offense at Stephen. They started whispering about him, riling up their fellow Jews by claiming that the Christian deacon was speaking blasphemous words. Finally, they brought Stephen before the council where the high priest asked him if the accusations were true. 

Stephen's response? He preached a sermon! Beginning with Abraham, he offered an overview of salvation history, emphasizing the faith of the patriarchs and the stubborn resistance of the Israelites. He ended by telling the council that they were just as stubborn as their ancestors. “You stiff-necked people,” Stephen exclaimed, “uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become His betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53). 

Naturally, this did not make the Jews happy. In fact, they were enraged. They even ground their teeth at Stephen. But he was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and he didn't even look at them. He was gazing up to Heaven, where he saw Jesus standing at the Father's right hand (Acts 7:55). “Look,” he cried out, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56).

The Jews were in no mood for Stephen's visions. They covered their ears so they wouldn't have to hear him, and then they rushed at him, dragging him out of the city and stoning him. Stephen responded to their attack with prayer, and just before he died, he imitated Jesus, calling out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60). Then Stephen died. 

So why does the Church present Stephen's story the day after Christmas? For several weeks now, we have been focusing on the Incarnation of Jesus as we've prepared our hearts during Advent and greeted Him yesterday on Christmas. But Jesus' Incarnation is only part of His story. The feast of St. Stephen vividly reminds of the rest of the story.

As Stephen tells us, Jesus is the fulfillment of salvation history. Everything that happened to Israel, all its patriarchs, all its trials, all its victories, every last thing, leads up to Jesus, that little Baby born in a stable on that first Christmas so long ago.

What's more, that Baby grew up, and He taught people how to live. Stephen is a prime example of someone who imitated Jesus. He served others. He opened his heart to the Holy Spirit. He allowed God to work through him, even performing miracles. He spoke the truth no matter what the cost. He understood his place in the world, but he knew that his place in eternity was more important. He trusted and believed God completely, even to the point of death. 

Further, when Stephen died, he could look forward to meeting Jesus in Heaven. In fact, he actually saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. That little Child, born at Christmas, suffered, died, and rose again for all of us, opening the way to Heaven so that we could live with Him forever and ever. Because of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, Stephen could experience his own birthday into Heaven when his earthly life was finished. 

The feast of St. Stephen, then, focuses our attention beyond the little Baby in the manager and vividly reminds us of the gift Jesus brought, not only by His birth but also by His life, death, and Resurrection. If we accept that gift as Stephen did, with faith and courage, we, too, will someday see Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father and hear Him welcome us into eternity.

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