December 26 – St. Stephen

Matt 10:17-22

Coming Persecution

OTHER HOMILY SOURCES:

There is a certain kind of prayer which is often heard. God cannot seem to resist granting this request. It is that which issued from the Cross: “”Father, forgive them, they know what they do!” Down through the ages, from St. Stephen, whose feats we commemorate today, to the martyrs of recent years, like St. Charles Lwanga and Blessed Miguel Pro, their single common plea was that of forgiveness for their oppressors.

The Lord assured his disciples: “When the hour (of persecution) comes, you will be given what you are to say. The Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.” Is it any wonder that only love and forgiveness issued from the lips of the martyrs? After all, it was the Spirit of God who spoke at them. To forgive is utterly impossible for us. Only through God’s grace can we offer no resistance to injury and can we bless our persecutors! It is therefore fitting that we celebrate today, right after Christmas, the feast of the proto-martyr Stephen who exemplified in his life what the Babe on the manger, the Son of God, has come to bring: LOVING FORGIVENESS. (SSpSAP Bible Diary 2002)

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St. Stephen is the first martyr to die for Jesus. Although he is truly a great saint we might still ask why is his feast celebrated on the day after Christmas. Probably for the simple reason the Church already celebrated his feast on this before December 25 became fixed as the Feast of Christ’s Birth.  It became so much a part of our tradition that the Church never considered moving the feast of St. Stephen to some other day of the year.

Intended or otherwise, we can find much that is appropriate in celebrating the feast of St. Stephen on the day after Christmas. When we are filled with beautiful and, at times, over sentimental thoughts about the crib, we get a sudden reminder of why Jesus came. We see that the crib scene is not just something cute and sweet but the beginning of a life that would end on the Cross. The coming of Jesus is a call to commitment, if need be to the ultimate call of martyrdom.

As the first Christian martyr, Stephen shows us what dying for Christ really means. To truly be a martyr it is not enough to be killed because of Jesus, one must die as Jesus died. Following the example of the Master, Stephen offered his spirit to God and prayed for forgiveness for those who killed him: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” A Christian martyr does not die consumed by hatred and crying for vengeance. His love for Christ overflows to those who persecute him.

As part of the Christmas celebration, St. Stephen shows us that to welcome Jesus is to offer our lives to him. It is a call to conversion, for how can we welcome Jesus without praying for forgiveness and for the power to love and forgive even our enemies? (Fr. John O’Mahony, SVD Bible Diary 2006)

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In an interview with Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun (zenith.org, June 2006), the fearless church leader recalled the many Chinese who were martyred because of Jesus: “Many died in prison, in concentration camps and in forced labor. Many others died of serious sicknesses contracted in prison. There are also those who have survived 20-30 years in prison and tortures; they too are martyrs. There are people who entered a prison or concentration camp when they were already elderly and with ruined health.”

In particular, he mentioned a group of young Chinese, members of the Legion of Mary, “who went to prison in Shanghai in the 50s, that majority laymen rather than priests or nuns, who do not have a family to think about. And yet, I have seen many of them leave the prisons with joy and serenity; a great testimony.” The Church in China relives the suffering of the early Church.

This day after Christmas is set by the Church as the “celebration” of the harrowing death of its first martyr, Stephen. “They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” This murder was even witnessed by the future co-founder of Christianity, Saul/Paul (Acts 7:58).

The reading sets the tone for those who would be following the way of the newborn Son of Mary – martyrdom. Note the similarities between Jesus and Stephen: both were accused of blasphemy; both prayed for their persecutors (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). The crib foreshadows the cross; Bethlehem leads to Calvary.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus foretells the fate of His followers: “You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me…You will be hated by all because of my name,” (Matt 10:18, 22). The reason for suffering persecutions is very clear – because of Jesus.

Here’s how Tacitus, a Roman historian in the second century A.D. described the persecutions suffered by the early Christians. They were falsely accused of burning Rome (= arson):

“The confessed members of the sect (meaning, the Christians) were arrested. Then on evidence furnished by them a huge multitude was convicted not so much on the count of arson but because of hatred of the human race….They were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.”

The early Christians who shed their blood for Jesus became literally “the light of the world.” (Fr. Randolf C. Flores, SVD Bible Diary 2007)

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We are still in a festive mood, but today’s readings are shocking: the martyrdom of St. Stephen and Jesus’ warning that those who follow Him would be persecuted. I think it is good that the Church did not move the feast of St. Stephen away from Christmas because I detect a strong message in the combination of the two feasts.

Yesterday we looked at the cute baby Jesus even may have kissed it. The nativity scene and kissing the baby can make us sentimental about why God became a helpless baby. And sentimentality is dangerous for an authentic life of faith! What happened in Bethlehem was far from a sentimental event. Just remember: Mary did not find a place in the inn to give birth. The Son of God was born in a cave and rested on hard straw. Jesus came not to live a comfortable life but to be a servant of humankind. He was ready to suffer, to be persecuted and even murdered. In other words, he made it clear from the first moment in this world that those who decide to follow him had to be ready to face the same fate he experienced.

To commemorate St. Stephen a day after Christmas helps us to become realistic Christians; it helps us not to complain or even accuse God when sufferings come into our lives.

But there is also Good News. Jesus assures us that in those moments the Holy Spirit will help us go through these trials as Stephen experienced. The first reading says that Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” He even saw heaven open and saw the glory of God. Since Jesus became one of us, we are never alone in carrying our burdens: “I know what you are going through. So don’t give up. I am with you always.” (Fr, Rudy Horst, SVD Bible Diary 2008)

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December 26, 2012

St. Stephen, first martyr
(Feast) RED

Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59
Ps 31
Mt 10:17-22

Mt 10:17-22
Coming Persecutions

[Jesus said to his apostles,] 17“Beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, 18and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans. 19When 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. 20For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. 22You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.”

REFLECTION:

The Spirit of your Father speaking through you. St. Stephen is known as the “protomartyr,” the first martyr. From Greek, the word “martyr” means “witness.” A martyr for the faith suffers out of love, to the point of death.

Stephen is stoned to death, the first believer recorded in the Acts of the Apostles to give his life for Jesus. His last two statements are remarkable. First, he forgives his accusers, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen has no bitterness, no hatred in his heart, no revenge on his mind. He wishes his persecutors forgiveness and salvation. With God’s grace, we, too, can be martyrs every day, in our own little way—turning hatred into healing, brokenness into blessing, revenge into reparation, and faultfinding into forgiveness.

Second, Stephen places his life in God’s hands as he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” In the face of death, Stephen calls on God, puts his hope in him, and entrusts everything to him.

As we face our responsibilities, let us not hesitate and be afraid. Like Stephen, let us pray, “Lord, receive the work of our hands.” And in the face of discouragement, let us say, “Lord, receive us.”

The name Stephen means “crown.” Stephen receives the crown of glory by witnessing to Jesus. The same destiny awaits us if we hold on to Jesus.

Let my motto be: “God first!” He has priority. He is number one in my life.

ssp.ph/index.php/online-resources/366-days-with-the-lord/2070-december-26-2012

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Reflection: St. Stephen is known as the “protomartyr,” the first martyr. From Greek, the word “martyr” means “witness.” a martyr witnesses to Jesus by his life and death. A martyr for the faith suffers out of love, to the point of death.

Stephen stoned to death, the first believer recorded in the Acts of the Apostles to give his life for Jesus. his last two statements are remarkable. First, he forgives his accusers, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen has no bitterness, no hatred in his heart, no revenge on his mind. He wishes his persecutors forgiveness and salvation. With God’s grace, we too can be martyrs everyday, in our own little way – turning hatred into healing, brokenness into blessing, revenge into reparation, faultfinding into forgiveness.

Second, Stephen places his life in God’s hands as he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” In the face of death, Stephen calls on God, puts his hope in him, and entrusts everything to him.

As we face our responsibilities, let us not hesitate and be afraid. Like Stephen, let us pray, “Lord, receive the work of our hands.” And in the face of discouragement, let us say, “Lord, receive us.”

The name Stephen means “crown.” Stephen receives the crown of glory by witnessing to Jesus. the same destiny awaits us if we hold on to Jesus.

Story: The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican was completed on October 31, 1541. The scene of the “Last Judgment” was breathtaking as it was thought-provoking. It seemed so real. When Pope Paul III saw the painting, he fell on his knees and prayed, “Lord, charge me not with my sins when Thou shalt come on the Day of Judgment.”

Challenge: Let my motto be: “God first!” He has priority.  He is number in my life. What are my preoccupations and anxieties? What must I let go so that God will be first in my life? (Most rev. Ruperto C. Santos DD STL, Waiting and Working for Jesus, Makati: St. Pauls, 1999:172-173)

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See Today’s Readings:  Year I,   Year II

Back to: December 26 (St. Stephen)

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