|St. Stephen, the First Martyr
Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59
Psalms 31:3-4, 6-8, 17, 21
I remember the very day when the American hostages who were held for months and months in Iran were released from their captivity in the American Embassy. I can’t remember the date but I do remember I was in the kitchen of Shalom House, the community to which I was assigned for my first year of theology in Berkeley, California. One of the other Jesuits was cooking dinner and had brought a television into the kitchen to watch as he cooked. I saw the captives being freed and remember I was quite happy and suddenly plunged into deep grief. I left the room and cried in the living room alone (hey, I’m a guy in America). My grief was not about the release of the hostages for that was indeed joyful but for an event that happened some months before, the death of my mother.
I suspect that at Christmas time many people slip away from the rejoicing crowd to cry by themselves, recalling in the height of joyfulness some deep sorrows. I confess that each year I do this at least once sometime during the day. For some, yesterday (Christmas), that day of great rejoicing, can be the darkest day of the year.
In the next few days we as Church slip out of the rejoicing to weep individually and collectively for our martyrs, those innocents who have died for the faith. True, we rejoice with the heavenly martyrs for their triumph over death and evil and yet at the same time we weep at their loss, the tragedy of violence, and the pain of separation.
Today, the day after Christmas, we honor Stephen, the first martyr for the faith. In two days we will weep with the women of Israel at the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. In these sorrows we will also remember many contemporary innocents who have been martyred for the faith, for their belief, for their unwillingness to compromise what is truest and deepest in them and in us.
Amidst the grief and sorrow there IS comfort and consolation. While Jesus reminds us of the coming persecutions that will face all who follow Him, He leaves us with a final word of comfort: “….whoever holds out till the end will escape death.” Not physical death—clearly the martyrs embraced death. But in embracing physical death they paradoxically embraced eternal life and have given US life through their grace and their examples. So too, when Luke records the history of Stephen and his death in the Book of Acts, he reminds us that at the end Stephen prayed the words of hope and consolation: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
At this Christmas season our material consumer orientated world encourages us to give more and more expensive gifts. The martyrs give the greatest of gifts, their very selves. We are asked to do the same, perhaps not physically in death, but indeed (and sometimes more difficulty) daily in dying to ourselves and living for Christ and for others.
I cried for my mother the day the hostages were freed. This is a woman who once for HER Christmas present brought me to a shopping mall and asked me to promise to give her the gift she wanted when she showed it to me. I promised and was whisked into the men’s department of a store where she promptly showed me a winter jacket I was to accept from her for HER present (I was a Jansenist Jesuit Novice of the Strictest Observance at the time and had warned her I was to accept no Christmas presents from her or the rest of the family in my misguided zeal for “poverty”—I have since been cured, thank God).
In rejoicing sorrow may come upon us. In sorrow, may rejoicing
always find us. This is the message of the Holy Martyrs, one of whose
feasts we celebrate this very day after Christmas.
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