Saint Stephen, Protomartyr – Readings

Saint Stephen, Protomartyr – Commentary on the day’s Scripture readings

FIRST READING (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, 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.

GOSPEL (Matthew 10:17-22)
Today’s passage from Matthew is taken from the discourse which Jesus spoke to his disciples, sending them out on their mission to do the same work that he was doing and instructing them on how to go about it. In today’s section he foretells what they can look forward to. They can expect to be “handed over” (a key word in the gospels) to governors and kings, which will give them an opportunity to bear witness before unbelievers. At the same time, they are not to be anxious about what they should say. The words they need will be given when the time comes. This has been consistently confirmed by people arrested for their beliefs in recent times. They find in themselves a strength and confidence they never knew they had.

Again, Jesus sadly predicts that following him will result in families being broken up – father against child, children against parents. Alas, this prediction, too, has been fulfilled all too often both in the past and in recent times.

“You will be hated by all on account of my name,” says Jesus. A strange fate indeed for those whose lives are built on truth, love and peace. Yet a fate only too sadly confirmed right down the centuries to this very day. Jesus had said that all those who wished to follow him would have to take up their cross and go after him. The servant is no greater than his master. "Whoever loves his own life will lose it; whoever hates his own life in this world will keep it for life eternal. Whoever wants to serve me must follow me, so that my servant will be with me where I am" (John 12:25-26). Stephen clearly is a perfect model of such a Christian disciple.

Some of us may find it strange to be talking about such painful things during the Christmas season. If we think like that then it may indicate that we do not fully understand the nature and purpose of Jesus’ birth. We tend to insulate the whole Christmas scene with romanticism and even a great deal of sentimentality but there was nothing sentimental about the Child being born in those rough surroundings, far from home, already ignored by the religious leadership of the day and whose only visitors were a group of poor and marginalised men and some mysterious visitors from out of the "pagan" darkness.

Ahead of this Child was a life of total service ending in the sacrifice of his life in shame and humiliation as the necessary step to our total liberation and sharing in his life. Christmas is the beginning of all this and Stephen is its eloquent symbol.

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