Friday, December 26, 2014

Stephen: The Christ-Like Martyr

Yours truly at the traditional site of
St. Stephen's tomb. 
Happy Feast of St. Stephen! I have always loved the story of St. Stephen in the book of Acts - so much so, in fact, we named our second son after him: Matthew Stephen.

The book of Acts describes Stephen as a "Christ-like" figure.

As I have explained elsewhere on this blog, this coheres with a larger theme of the book of Acts--Luke describes the life of the early Church in terms similar to the life of Christ in the Gospel of Luke. The message is clear: Christ is continuing to live in his Church. (Go here for more on that).

Like Jesus, then, Stephen is arrested, made to stand before the ruling council, accused by false witnesses of claiming Jesus would destroy the temple (a charge leveled against Jesus at his trial in Matthew and Mark), questioned by the high priest, and executed.

The climactic moment of Jesus’ trial is Jesus' response to the high priest in which he explains that Caiaphas will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven (Luke 22:69–70). After this, of course, he is condemned to death (Luke 22:71).

In the book of Acts, Stephen’s trial climaxes with a similar statement: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).

After this, Stephen is martyred.

Moreover, Stephen is even described as being like Jesus in death. Just before dying Jesus prays, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). Stephen likewise prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).

Furthermore, when Jesus is crucified he prays, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Similarly, Stephen prays for his accusers: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Notably, Acts goes on to describe the conversion of one of those who was involved in his murder, namely, Saul/St. Paul (cf. Acts 7:58; 8:1).

St. Augustine famously attributed great efficacy to Stephen's prayer, saying, “Had Stephen not prayed, the Church today would have no Paul” (Sermon on the Nativity of St. Stephen 6, 5).

I'll end this post with a quote from Benedict XVI:
The life of St. Stephen is entirely shaped by God, conformed to Christ, whose passion is repeated in him; in the final moment of death, on his knees, he takes up the prayer of Jesus on the cross, trusting in the Lord (Acts 7:59) and forgiving his enemies: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (60). Filled with the Holy Spirit, as his eyes are about to close, he fixed his gaze on "Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (55), the Lord of all, who draws all to him. 
On St. Stephen’s Day, we are called to fix our gaze on the Son of God, who, in the joyful atmosphere of Christmas, we contemplate in the mystery of his incarnation. . . Allowing ourselves be drawn by Christ, like St. Stephen, means opening our lives to the light that calls, directs and makes us walk the path of good, the path of humanity, according to God’s loving plan. (Angelus address, December 26, 2012)[source]

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