Psalm 31: 3cd-4, 6bc and 17 -“…Rescue me from the clutches of my enemies and my persecutors. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your kindness….”
Matthew 10: 17-22 - “…When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say…”
Our reading from Acts describes some of the spiritual gifts that Stephen shared with the community he was called to lead spiritually. As Christianity spread, it caused the Apostles to seek help to handle the spiritual and physical needs of the people (and the reading refers specifically to its widows). Remember these communities combined their goods and incomes in order to share with all the people. In the Collegeville Bible Commentary, reference is made to the Aramaic speaking Jews and the Greek speaking Jews (of which Stephen belonged) now coexisting in these communities and there was some concern that the poor among them were not being treated fairly.
Stephen is the first one mentioned among seven chosen to fulfill this expanded role in the Church. This is why he is called the patron saint of Deacons. Stephen was “filled with faith and the holy spirit” (Acts 6:5). The Collegeville Bible Commentary refers to the apostles’ leadership as being symbolized by their control over the community purse. But the community’s physical care was not Stephen’s only charge; he also taught Christ’s teachings. But those listening who had not converted “could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” (Acts 6:10) In Acts 7:1-53 Stephen runs through a long discourse of Jewish history from Abraham to Moses, showing in particular the parallels of Jesus’ life to that of Moses. Though he spoke with great authority, the people did not like what he had to say, and shortly thereafter sought to eliminate him. Stephen was run out of town and they stoned him to death.
But Stephen was filled with the holy spirit and accompanied by all of heaven, as written in Acts 7:56: “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” While they were stoning him, he prayed that they be forgiven and said “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59) There were many parallels of Stephen’s death and the end of Jesus’ life; notice his request for forgiveness of his attackers.
Today’s Gospel is tied into this scene we leave with Stephen’s death as Jesus tells us to beware of men who will hand you over to courts, governors and kings for His sake. Then he says “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say.” (Matthew 10:19) Reading these words made me think of the words that Stephen spoke on his death bed. They say he was radiating. It is this model of our saints that can be so frightening to imagine. Could we possibly endure this pain and suffering because of our Faith? These readings seem to suggest that Stephen might have been removed from the pain and suffering because he put his trust in the Lord; we can not know for certain. His consent to allow the holy spirit to dwell in him was a good indication of the strength of his prayer life.
So, just one day past the celebration of Christ’s Birth, we are reminded why Jesus came. Let us pray for strength for the journey. We do not know that we may be called upon to defend our Faith; as was passed on by the early Church Deacon, St. Stephen. As he was able, let us also be ready to receive our instruction. If we are listeners of the Word, we can be doers of the Word as well. Jesus said “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)
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