Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Parish, Acushnet, MA
Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr
December 26, 2015
Acts 6:8-10.7:54-59, Ps 31, Mt 10:17-22
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click here:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- In the Church’s liturgical calendar, the observance of the feasts of saints is normally trumped by the most important liturgical seasons. For example, when saints’ memorials that ordinarily would have to be celebrated (obligatory memorials) fall in Lent, Easter, Advent or Christmastide, they become optional, encouraging the priest to focus on the liturgical season more than the particular holy man or woman. When such saints’ days fall during the most important parts of the liturgical year — Sundays, the weekdays of Holy Week, and the Easter Octave — they’re generally outright suppressed. Even though the Christmas Octave is liturgically basically in the same category of feasts that take precedence over all saints’ days (as we will see later in the week with the feasts of St. Thomas Becket on Dec. 29, St. Roger on Dec. 30, and St. Silvester on Dec. 31), the Church makes an exception for the first three days after Christmas and has made the celebration of three saints’ days not just obligatory but liturgically festive: today, the Feast of St. Stephen; Dec. 27, the feast of St. John the Evangelist (which will not be celebrated because of the Feast of the Holy Family, moved to the Sunday between Dec 25 and Jan 1); and Dec. 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Church wants to ensure that marking their feast days are never optional.
- While it’s somewhat straightforward to celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents during the Christmas season and not much of a stretch to celebrate St. John, since his Gospel on how the Word became Flesh and how we either accept or reject Christ the Light (Christmas Day) who shines on the people walking in Darkness (Christmas Vigil) can be easily tied into Christmas, the feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, which occurs annually the day after Christmas, requires more work to harmonize. The events described in today’s first reading about his calling, ministry and martyrdom, all took place about 40 years after the events we celebrated yesterday on Christmas Day. If we’re able to grasp the connection between the two, however, it will help very much to reinforce the message of Christmas.
- The fundamental message of Christmas is that Christ has come into the world to remake us even more wondrously than he formed us in Creation. The Savior is born for us so that we might experience rebirth. As the opening prayer of the Mass yesterday during the day emphasized, Christ took on our humanity so that we might share in his divinity. The “reason for the season” is not simply “Jesus” but more precisely what Jesus wishes to do in us. That’s what this feast of St. Stephen helps us to ponder. In the opening prayer of the Mass, we turn to God the Father and ask, “Grant, Lord, … that we may imitate what we worship.” We beg for the grace to emulate Christ the Lord before whose manger we kneel. And if we’re going to imitate Jesus, we can’t forget that that Baby born in a silent night in a stable came into the world to fight, to fight with love as the Good Shepherd to redeem us from wolves, to fight against the devil, to fight for the full love of God and love of others, including the love of those who have made themselves our enemies. And that baby adored by shepherds who grew up to call himself the Good Shepherd calls us to follow him, to imitate him whom we adore.
- We see that St. Stephen imitated the Lord he adored in at least three notable ways. The first was by sharing the Good News Jesus came into the world to announce. Before Pontius Pilate, Jesus said, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (Jn 18:37). When people were trying to retain him in their village to continue to perform miracles of healing, Jesus said, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent” (Lk 4:43). When he inaugurated his public ministry, he said simply, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Lk 4:18). St. Stephen imitated the Lord whom he adored. We see him in the Acts of the Apostles preaching and teaching, entering into debates with those who had come to challenge him seeking to prove that Jesus was not the Messiah and claiming that Jesus was one aiming to destroy Judaism by destroying the Temple rather than fulfill Judaism as the new and definitive place of worship. St. Luke tells us, “They couldn’t withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” He was speaking so capably not only because of his loving study of all Jesus had said and done, all that God had revealed through salvation history in the Old Testament, but mostly because he was the instrument of the Holy Spirit speaking through him. Jesus in today’s Gospel says that his disciples would be dragged before synagogues, courts, governors and kings, but we are “not [to] 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. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” St. Stephen was not worried and the Holy Spirit was in fact speaking through him. If we are going to emulate the Lord Jesus, we must become an echo of his teaching, we must become a similar instrument of the Holy Spirit, we much become with him a witness to the Truth. We see with the Shepherds how they returned from adoring Jesus “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.” Pope Francis reminded us in his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” that announcing the good news is not a task for an elite clique of professional preachers, but the duty of every believer. To be a disciple is to be a missionary disciple. How, he asks, can any of us really encounter the love of God and not want to share that love with others? Stephen gave his life to share that love.
- The second way St. Stephen imitated the Lord Jesus whom he worshipped was through self-giving loving service of others. Like the other first deacons, he was chosen and ordained for the work of charity, like caring for the Greek widows who were not getting enough food to eat. The Acts of the Apostles tells us, “At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them. The word of God continued to spread” (Acts 6:1-7). They needed to be men filled with the Holy Spirit and with wisdom, because charity was not just supposed to be social work but an encounter with God and his love radiating through his Church. Some people looking at the call of the first deacons misinterpret the meaning of the call to charity in the Church. The apostles ordained these deacons to this service so that they could dedicate themselves more to the proclamation of the Gospel, but this wasn’t to say that charity was less important than preaching, but that, because it was so important and the apostles’ couldn’t do everything themselves, it needed to be given to people to make sure it got done. Pope Benedict wrote in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), that the work of charity is just as indispensable as the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments. In this charitable work, St. Stephen imitated the Lord Jesus who came not to be served but to serve. We, too, are called to learn from the One we adore how to give our lives out of loving service for others. The Christmas season is full of stories of the lengths and depths people go in order to care for others, but the most important gifts can’t be enveloped in wrapping paper; it’s the gift of unselfish care and sacrifice for others. St. Stephen learned that lesson from Jesus and is interceding for us to learn the same lesson.
- The third and perhaps most notable way St. Stephen imitated the Lord he worshipped was in the way he died, which was an exclamation point on the way he lived. So identified had he become with the Lord Jesus’ thoughts and actions that when he was being stoned to death in a pit, when heavy rocks were hitting his head and pummeling his body, he thought first not to defend himself but to echo Jesus’ own words and thoughts from the Cross. Jesus’ first words pinned to the tree on Calvary were, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” St. Stephen’s were “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” He had entered into the depth of the Lord’s own merciful love. After begging the Father in the opening prayer of the Mass for the grace to imitate what we adore, we ask him for the same grace Stephen received, to imitate Jesus in the face of persecution and death: “and so learn to love even our enemies, for we celebrate the heavenly birthday of a man who knew how to pray even for his persecutors.” There will be many people who will oppose us because of our faith in Jesus. Some Christians even today are being killed in the Middle East, some parts of Africa, China and Korea and elsewhere just because they’re Chirstian. Here in the United States, we might not be murdered for our faith, but we will suffer. If we defend Christ’s teachings on marriage, we’ll be called homophobes. If we defend Christ’s teaching on the evil of murdering innocent babies in the womb, we’ll be called misogynists. If we’re faithful to Jesus’ teachings on sexual morality, we’ll be labeled prudes. If we’re open to the conversion to which Pope Francis is calling us on economic idolatry, we’ll be labeled socialists or marxists. But in all of this, our response needs to involve praying for the conversion of those who have made themselves our enemies. St. Stephen not only resonated Jesus’ first words from the Cross but his last. Jesus’ valedictory was “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit!” St. Stephen’s was, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” He entrusted himself to the care of the One he worshipped, so that he might enter into Jesus’ own entrustment of himself and his Bride and Body to the Father. That’s a crucial lesson for us to learn and imitate, to entrust, to consecrate ourselves fully, to Jesus who has come into our world and taken on our humanity so that we might grow with his grace into his own divine likeness. That happens not just and not principally by our efforts but by his divine help. We need to trust in that love and live in it, not just at the end of our life and at all points between now and then.
- Today we come forward to this Mass on the feast of St. Stephen prepared to adore the One whom we’re about to receive. Jesus took on our humanity so that he might transform us to share his divinity, to share his very life, truth, and way (Jn 14:6). We ask Jesus, through the intercession of his protomartyr, to give us the grace to “do this in memory” of him, imitating his teaching, his loving service, his life and death so that we might with many others come to share St. Stephen’s eternal joy in that place where the angels forever sing “Glory to God in the Highest!”
The readings for today’s Mass were:
ACTS 6:8-10; 7:54-59
was working great wonders and signs among the people.
Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen,
Cyrenians, and Alexandrians,
and people from Cilicia and Asia,
came forward and debated with Stephen,
but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.
and they ground their teeth at him.
But he, filled with the Holy Spirit,
looked up intently to heaven
and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,
and he said,
“Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man
standing at the right hand of God.”
But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears,
and rushed upon him together.
They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.
The witnesses laid down their cloaks
at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As they were stoning Stephen, he called out
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
PS 31:3CD-4, 6 AND 8AB, 16BC AND 17
Be my rock of refuge,
a stronghold to give me safety.
You are my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake you will lead and guide me.
R. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Into your hands I commend my spirit;
you will redeem me, O LORD, O faithful God.
I will rejoice and be glad because of your mercy.
R. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Rescue me from the clutches of my enemies and my persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your kindness.
R. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
“Beware of men, for they will hand you over to courts
and scourge you in their synagogues,
and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake
as a witness before them and the pagans.
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.
For it will not be you who speak
but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Brother will hand over brother to death,
and the father his child;
children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but whoever endures to the end will be saved.”