Saint Stephen’s Day – Reading

Commentary on Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59

It is very fitting that the first feast celebrated after Christmas should be that of the first person recorded as giving his life in the service of his Lord and Master Jesus Christ and for the vision of life that the Gospel represents.

Stephen was one of those chosen earlier to attend to the material needs of Hellenists among the early apostolic communities. The Hellenists (the word comes from Hellas, ‘Ellas, the name for Greece in Greek) refers to Jewish Christians from the East Mediterranean region whose native language was Greek and who spoke little or no Aramaic. (Hebrews indicated Christians among Aramaic-speaking Jews.)

However, it is clear from the Acts of the Apostles that Stephen was being called to more than corporal works of mercy. He became a powerful voice in proclaiming the message of Jesus and very soon was running into opposition especially from overseas Jews who were converts to Judaism. These people, known as ‘Freedmen’, could have been descendants of Jews carried off to Rome by Pompey in 63 BC. They were sold into slavery but later released. They might also be former slaves who came from North Africa or Asia Minor. When it comes to race or religion, exiles can be far more fanatical than those living ‘at home’ and hence Hellenist Jews who became Christian were targets of their anger.

What truly roused their anger was that they could not better him in their arguments. Like Jesus, he was filled with wisdom and was guided by the Spirit in all that he said.

Eventually opposition grew to such an extent that Stephen was arrested and brought to trial in Jerusalem. It is not recorded in today’s readings but in the course of his defence he gave his judges a lesson in salvation history, showing clearly how Jesus was the expected culmination of all that happened in the course of God’s intervention among his people over the centuries.

Finally, Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, sees the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand – the vindication of all that he had been saying. “I can see heaven thrown open,” he says, “and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” The words echo those of Jesus during his own trial: “You will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the Almighty” (Matt 26:64). This was more than his listeners could bear. They stopped their ears at what they regarded as utter blasphemy. He was seized, dragged out of the city and stoned to death. As he died, again in imitation of his Master, he prayed for forgiveness on his executioners.

The similarities between the trial and death of Stephen and that of Jesus are striking and are clearly deliberate. Stephen is the perfect fulfilment of the challenge that Jesus put to his disciples in the Gospel. He is the perfect disciple.

Finally, the witnesses – who also according to the Jewish Law were his executioners – had left their clothes at the feet of a Pharisee called Saul. Was he actually the instigator of all that was happening? Soon he would show himself a zealous persecutor of these ‘Christians’, these heretical Jews who had to be crushed. But his time would come and there would a miraculous turnaround. Far from being a fanatical Jew, he would become the Apostle of the Gentiles, bringing the Word of Christ not only to his own people but even more to the whole world.

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