Friday, December 26, 2008

Stephen, the first martyr

Because I'm one of those "crazy pacifists," I am sometimes challenged to defend its apparent impracticality. In other words, challengers will say, it sounds great as an ideal, but we live in the "real world," and we all know what happens in the "real world" if you "turn the other cheek": your other cheek gets hit, and harder!

Of course, this objection is true. On the other hand, making peace was never offered to followers of Jesus as a recipe for "success," and in fact, if anyone portrays it as such, they're sadly mistaken. The truth is that, at least sometimes and perhaps often, it will not "work." But "success" and "work" are in quote marks here because their use in the objection employs definitions that Christians cannot accept: they are definitions of worldly power constructed by marketplace values. As Christians, "success" has to be defined by our faithfulness to the one we follow. This is why Christians have always esteemed martyrs: they have been successful.

Today is the feast day of Stephen, the first martyr. You can read his story in Acts 6:8-7:2,44-8:1. The following comment on Stephen's martyrdom is from a sermon of St. Fulgentius of Ruspe.

Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier.

Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.

Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvelous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.

And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.

Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.

Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defence,- and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.

My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.


Divine_Contemplative said...

So this is the day that good King Wenceslas looked out... when the snow lay 'round about, deep and crisp and even.

I'd always wondered.

And that homily is fantastic. I'd never ever given Stephen even the slightest thought. The last sentence is especially powerful: let us make our ascent together.

chip said...

I had not made that connection -- and had never really paid attention to the lyrics of that song. But, here they are:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

Divine_Contemplative said...

I sang an abbreviated version of it in choir one year in high school.

Divine_Contemplative said...
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