Stephen…was a man filled with grace and power, who worked great wonders and signs among the people.…Those who listened to his words were stung to the heart; they ground their teeth in anger at him. Stephen meanwhile, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked to the sky above and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. “Look!” he exclaimed. “I see an opening in the sky, and the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand.” The onlookers were shouting aloud, holding their hands over their ears as they did so. Then they rushed at him as one man, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him… As Stephen was being stoned, he could be heard praying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”… “Do not lay this sin against them.” Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59
The first Christian martyr and one of the first deacons of the early church, St. Stephen was a great orator and a brilliant debater. As the number of Christians grew quickly, the apostles needed deacons to help them in caring for the poor. Stephen was trustworthy and willing to do this work along with preaching to the Jews the Good News of Jesus. Unfortunately, his preaching was so successful that the Jews began to worry that his position would be accepted. So, they took him to Court, the Supreme Jewish Court, the Sanhedrin. There, Stephen was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to be stoned to death. Crowds were incited to anger, and he was dragged to the streets for his stoning. As we read in today’s second reading, he prayed, “Do not lay this sin against them.”
Stephen was the first martyr, but since the time of Jesus, Christians have been martyred for their faith. And, while it’s not a good selling point for potential Christian converts, being a follower of Jesus has always been risky. We may not realize it so much in the United States of America where we are free to practice our faith, but if we look to our brothers and sisters around the world, we cannot deny this.
Early in the church were martyrs like St. Perpetua, Agatha, and Lucy. But this continued through all the years. In the 1980’s missionaries were murdered in El Salvador. In 2016, French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel was murdered in a Normandy church attack while he celebrated Mass. The list is long, very long.
The word martyr means witness. This is something we are all called to be: witnesses to Jesus. Our martyrdom may not be bloody, but witnessing is never easy. When we stand up for someone being denied rights or are willing to tell the truth when the cost may be financially or politically great, we are witnessing.
When we reach out in love to those who hate us and pray for those who have deeply hurt us, we are witnessing to Jesus.
Yesterday we celebrated the birth of Jesus, but we all know how His life ended. Ours must take the same course. There is no other way to heaven. So, let us ask St. Stephen to intercede for us that we may have the daily courage to be true witnesses to the wonder of Jesus’ love, a love that made Him want to be born and, eventually, to die for us, and to be raised to eternal life!
St. Stephen is our twenty-eighth Ornament of Grace.
Observing the Beautiful Ornaments
Did you ever find yourself in a position where witnessing to Jesus cost you dearly?
Is there a martyr to whom you pray for courage on a regular basis? If so, why did you choose that particular martyr?