This blog continues to follow the Catholic daily bible readings. Today is St. Stephen’s day.
Reading 1, Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59
8 Stephen was filled with grace and power and began to work miracles and great signs among the people.
9 Then certain people came forward to debate with Stephen, some from Cyrene and Alexandria who were members of the synagogue called the Synagogue of Freedmen, and others from Cilicia and Asia.
10 They found they could not stand up against him because of his wisdom, and the Spirit that prompted what he said.
54 They were infuriated when they heard this, and ground their teeth at him.
55 But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.
56 ‘Look! I can see heaven thrown open,’ he said, ‘and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.’
57 All the members of the council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands; then they made a concerted rush at him,
58 thrust him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul.
59 As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’
Acts tells us very little about Stephen before recounting his martyrdom. Some scholars suspect that the author is using this story, as a disguised version of the martyrdom of James the Just, which happened nearer his own time. There seems no way of confirming this suspicion, so it’s best to treat the story as it stands. Stephen was a deacon, charged with the task of caring for the sick, the poor and the outcast of the first church community and more generally, of Jerusalem. His saintliness and wisdom aroused jealousy from the Graeco-Jewish synagogue, who denounced him to the Sanhedrin. Some scholars doubt the capacity of any one other than the Romans to carry out the death penalty in Judaea, but the details of the killing sound more like a lynching than a legal act. This is the way of power in all ages: when it fails in argument, it reaches for the gun. The church celebrates its martyrs, but fails to repent its own killings of heretics and adherents of other faiths. My own Church of Scotland began its life in 1560, with the murder of Cardinal David Beaton, who had himself ordered the killing of the protestant George Wishart in St. Andrews in 1546. Other killings in the name of Christ have disfigured our national church over the centuries. Those who regret the tolerance of the multi-religious modern state forget the vileness of religious persecution, which can still flare up in Christian societies, for example, in the intention of many Ugandan Christians to provide the death sentence for persistent homosexual relationships. This persecution will also create martyrs who, like Stephen, rest their cause with God.
Christian martyrs do not want to die, nor do they use their deaths as a means to damage others, in the fashion of suicide bombers. They, like Stephen, make witness to the suffering and victory of Christ, by continuing to resist the powers of violence, with the strength of their love and the frailty of their bodies. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, maintained the honour of Christ by opposing Hitler, for which he was shot in 1945. Many non-Christians have also died in this spirit, which is the spirit of Christ, who will surely greet them as brothers and sisters. In a violent world anyone may be unexpectedly called to oppose evil at the peril of their own lives. This is what we recognise when we pray, “lead us not into temptation (Greek peirasmos, not “temptation” in the modern sense; rather, the experience of being tested) but deliver us from evil.”