The liturgy of the Catholic Church includes a year-long "reliving" of the events of the life of Christ, one after the other, and a constant reminder of the stories of people who have paid attention to it, heroically. The liturgical cycle we are experiencing in these days after Christmas is a perfect example of this “reliving” of the events of Christ’s life: Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is immediately followed by the feast of Stephen’s martyrdom today (December 26), the feast of the mystical Evangelist John (December 27
), the Feast of the Holy Family (also on December 27 this year), the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (December 28
), and the feast of another great martyr- St. Thomas à Becket (December 29
). The Church teaches us that we cannot tarry at the stable in Bethlehem but hasten to Galilee and then to the hill of Calvary in Jerusalem where the whole story reaches its extreme moment and summit. As we pass from feast to feast, we move from being admirers to imitators of Jesus, we grow in our discipleship and holiness.
As we remember St. Stephen’s life and witness today, we also remember those many Christians who were and continue to be victims of persecution and the new wave of martyrdom occurring in our time. Let us recall Stephen’s story. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that the disciples chose seven men: "Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus. The Apostles prayed over them and laid their hands upon them." (Acts 7:5-6). After Stephen and the others are chosen, they are never presented carrying out the task for which they were appointed. Rather, two of their number, Stephen and Philip, are presented as preachers of the Christian message. Stephen is the most representative of the group of seven companions. Our tradition sees in this group the origins of the future ministry of "deacons", although we should keep in mind that this particular ministerial distinction is not present in the Acts of the Apostles.
In addition to charitable work, Stephen carried out the work of evangelization among his own people – the so-called "Hellenists". Luke insists on the fact that Stephen, "full of grace and power", presented in Jesus' Name a new interpretation of Moses and of God's Law itself. Stephen reread the Old Testament in the light of the proclamation of Christ's death and Resurrection.
Luke takes great pains to indicate Stephen's relation to the Spirit: A man full of faith in the Holy Spirit
(Acts 6:5); they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which [Stephen] spoke (Acts 6:10
). Later Stephen accused them: You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit
), and as he approached death we read: Filled with the Holy Spirit he gazed into Heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right had of God
). Whether Luke intended it deliberately or not, he seems to be saying that the tragic death of Stephen was both inevitable and necessary for the sending out of the disciples.
One of the powerful lessons we learn from Stephen's life and witness is that charitable social works must never be separated from the bold, explicit and courageous proclamation of the faith. There is no question that Stephen was one of the seven entrusted with the works of charity. But it was impossible to separate charity and faith. Charity and the proclamation of faith always go hand in hand.
We are deeply moved by Stephen’s plea for the forgiveness of his executioners: «Lord, do not hold this sin against them» (Acts 7:60). Only in this way did Stephen and so many others after him, shatter the chain of violence and move beyond deep feelings of resentment and vengeance.
In today’s special Angelus Address in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis spoke about St. Stephen. The Holy Father noted that Stephen is a faithful witness, because he does as Jesus does. He knows how to love, to give, but especially to forgive.
Forgiveness, the Pope explained, “leads to "results" and is not just "a good deed": "Among those for which Stephen begged forgiveness was St. Paul. The Pope continued, “we can say that Paul was born by God's grace and Stephen’s forgiveness".
Francis said: "We too are born from God's forgiveness. Not only in baptism, but every time we are forgiven our heart is reborn, it is regenerated. We must never tire of asking God's forgiveness, because only when we are forgiven can we learn to forgive. "
But, the Pope underlined, that "to forgive, is always very difficult." Every day, we have the opportunity to train ourselves to forgive, to live this elevated gesture that brings man closer to God. As our Heavenly Father, we too become merciful, through forgiveness we overcome evil with good, we transform hate into love and so we make the world cleaner."
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation