But (Stephen), 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.”
On this second day of Christmas we celebrate the great victory Saint Stephen has won in the name of Christ. Despite its ghastly familiarity – we hear stories of grisly violence almost daily -- this story reinterprets a "typical tragedy" -- if there is such a thing -- in an entirely new light. Stephen was not a victim; rather by his preaching the gospel to a hostile crowd, his prayer for them and his surrender to the Lord who appeared to him, he demonstrated more freedom than we have ever seen in human history. This is a breakthrough moment for all of us.
As the Apostles reread the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension they found many heroic persons who resembled the Lord. Adam was a type of Christ because he was the first human being. Abel’s blood, like that of Jesus, cried out from the earth. Noah built an ark to save his people. Abraham became the father of a new nation as Jesus fathered a new people born through baptism. And so forth. We could add David, Melchizedeck , and any of the prophets. These heroes most resembled Jesus in the spirit that animated them. In fact, the same Holy Spirit who selected and guided these types and then preserved their sacred memory, guided Jesus throughout his life.
By the manner of his death, Saint Luke recognized Jesus' Spirit in Stephen. This was enormously good news for the early church.
The martyrs assure us that the Holy Spirit is still alive, present and powerful in our community. Generation after generation, century after century, despite the changes that seemed unimaginable and the obstacles that seem insurmountable, the Holy Spirit raises up men, women and children who share his suffering by being conformed to his death.
If we’re occasionally discouraged by the same old, same old in our parishes; if we find our fellow Christians guarding their territory, stifling initiatives and repeating irrelevant arguments of fifty years ago, the martyrs assure us that God has not abandoned his Church. These men and women do not sacrifice their lives for an idea or an opinion. They are not starry-eyed idealists who climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow till they find their dreams. They face opponents who feel just as convinced of their righteousness; they pit their sincerity against the convictions of others but the Holy Spirit within them does not let them back down. They are martyrs for love in the face of an opposition which daily invokes love and compassion and truth.
Despite its violence and horror the death of the brash young Stephen was an encouraging signal to the apostolic church. By his crucifixion, Jesus set the pattern of his death to be followed by every martyr. Saint Luke recognized the pattern and spelled it out with unmistakable clarity in his narrative.
The world around us apes the language of Christian tradition. They use words like compassion, integrity, fidelity and love to support abortion, racism and suicide but they know nothing of our Spirit.
By the freedom which comes only from God's Spirit the martyrs guide us in the Way of Christ.