Feast of St. Stephen, First Martyr
The Eyes of Stephen
The Eyes of Stephen
Readings: Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59; Psalm 31:3cd-4, 6 and 8ab, 16bc and 17; Matthew 10:17-22
On this day every year, just a day after having stood before the Christ-child in the manger, we find ourselves gazing at the scene described in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the scene of Stephen’s stoning. Yesterday we gazed in wonder and awe at a newborn child. Today we gasp in horror and repulsion at the cruel killing of one of the first deacons of the Church. In the manger we were lulled by our favorite carols into quiet contemplation: all is calm, all is bright. At the stoning we are buffeted by the clamor of ferocious argument and the gloom of hardened hearts: all is dark, all is noise. Yesterday we listened joyfully to the angels of heaven proclaiming peace on earth to all of goodwill. Today we are forced to witness a shocking display of violence perpetrated by men upon their fellowman. Could a more striking contrast be possible?
And yet the Church displays great wisdom in placing manger and stoning so closely together before us. For when we gaze at our own lives, at our own world, isn’t it true that we inevitably find a mixture of both these scenes? Isn’t it true that just as there is joy and peace and hope, there is also sadness and violence and despair? And isn’t it true that we only truly understand the significance of one in the light of the other? We can only enter deeply into the mystery of one to the extent that we allow ourselves to be immersed in the other.
Without the manger it is tempting to allow the cruelty of Stephen’s persecutors and the violence of our own world to fill us with despair. Without the stoning we can so easily forget that not far from the manger’s holy interior lie so many inns that could afford no room for God’s own Son. Just as not far from the pious corners of our hearts there are many hardened nooks and crannies that still await God’s grace. And isn’t it precisely out of love for hostile hearts that the Son of God is born?
Even so, when we gaze more intently at manger and stoning, we begin to discover that they have more in common than we might think. For while the manger is the birthplace of the Son of Man, isn’t it also where the Son of God begins his journey unto his Cross? And while the stoning is Stephen’s pain-racked deathbed, isn’t it also the place of his glorious entrance into eternal life? Also, although the manger is as calm as the stoning is riotous, do they both not resound with the eternal Word of God, the same Word who comes to us as a helpless babe and who inspires Stephen’s submission, the same Word that speaks of a love stronger than death? And although the stoning is as violent as the manger is peaceful, do we not see in Stephen the peace that is the fruit of the eternal Spirit, the same Spirit that inspires his speech and empowers his actions, the same Spirit responsible for the new life in the manger?
But we know from experience that it is not an easy thing to see these similarities in our own lives. It is not easy to see the stoning in the manger and the manger in the stoning. To do this we need to ask for the same Spirit that animated Stephen and enabled him, even through his suffering, to see heaven thrown open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Today, even as we continue to celebrate Christmas, we need to ask, for ourselves and for our world, for the eyes of Stephen.