Keep the Faith! St. Stephen the Martyr ~ The Very Rev. Lady Sherwood, OPI

Reading 1 ACTS 6:8-10; 7:54-59

Responsorial Psalm PS 31:3CD-4, 6 AND 8AB, 16BC AND 17

Gospel MT 10:17-22

Liturgical colour: Red.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ!  We have just celebrated both Christmas eve, and only yesterday, we celebrated Christmas day itself, the Wonderful feast of the birth of Jesus, Our Lord and Saviour. We have reflected upon the little newborn babe in the crib,  we have sung “silent night” and “Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing”, amongst other hymns, Carol’s, and no doubt festive non religious tunes of all varieties as well, and we have heard the tidings of peace, joy and salvation to all the world. And suddenly today, in stark contrast, we are clothed in blood-red vestments, we hear of the bloody death of Stephen, and of Jesus’ warnings of persecution, death, and hatred for his name’s sake. So, Is there a connection between Christmas and the first Holy martyr Stephen? How are we to make sense of this dramatic sudden contrast? Does it mean we shouldn’t take the beauty and the peace of Christmas too seriously? Does it mean that Christmas is merely a wonderful story, but that the reality is indeed extremely different…?

Not at all!! The long tradition of the Church in celebrating the memorial of St. Stephen the day after Christmas does not serve to demote Christmas in any way whatsoever, but to continue it, to strengthen it, and to manifest more clearly in our hearts the important meaning of the Christmas celebration. Jesus became mankind, he became born as an earthly child, so to in in his adult earthly years, to sacrifice himself for us and for our salvation.  He wanted as he wants today and always, for us to give him his rightful place within our hearts.  So after Christmas, the birth of the small Jesus, we contemplate also the birth of the Church,  because Our Lord was and is the Church, he was the church as a child.

Now when Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts, that cannot remain without effect upon us.  When Our Lord  and Saviour, who can do all things dwells within us, he transforms our hearts, and thus makes a difference in our attitudes towards one another and toward life.  St. Stephen’s life is an excellent example of this. As one of the first deacons he had a double task. He was assigned to the service of the tables, to the “service of love” to the poor, so that the Apostles would have more time for their preaching. But Stephen also had the gift of preaching, and so he would also perform the ministry of truth. Stephen, trusting in Jesus, devoted himself whole-heartedly to the tasks entrusted into him. He was stoned to death because his preaching of Jesus as the Son of God was considered blasphemy. Now, we might think that if Stephen, had been far more considerate of the understanding and passion of his Jewish brothers for the oneness of God, and had spoken more carefully about Jesus, that he would not have been stoned, that maybe he could have continued to preach about Jesus, and that by doing this,he could have done more good….

But St. Stephen make no compromises concerning the truth. He proclaims the Jesus who revealed himself and the one truth whom he had come to know. But he does not proclaim this truth by way of any violence or hatred, but in instead in the acts of love and self-giving. Until the last moment he forgives the men who kill him. As Jesus prayed for those who killed him, so St. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not count this sin against them!” And his witness, his death was fruitful for us as members of the Church. The remembrance of this witness, for example, probably helped Saul later to accept Christ’s message as the truth, and to later become the great Apostle Paul.

St. Stephen is an excellent example to us of true and unwavering faithfulness to Jesus, an example of holding fast to the truth in love. This is an example of the way we all should and want to go within our lives. This path of truth and salvation is not always easy. It is not always easy to avoid deviating from the correct path in one way or another. Sometimes one hears that faithful Christians, in order to be tolerant of others, must abandon the claim to truth, that they must not proclaim or hold the faith as truth or even as true, for that to some, may lead to intolerance and to hatred. But the example of St. Stephen shows us clearly that the world needs the witness of the truth, and that it is possible to preach this truth with steadfast conviction and yet without  any violence or hate, but in the acts of love and self-giving.

Let us pray to Jesus, who came into this world as a child for our sakes, that we have the courage and the wisdom to profess our faith in our family life, in our workplaces, in our society, wherever we are, in a convinced and convincing loving manner, as St. Stephen did. Amen.

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