Thought for the week - 7 May 2023
In the first reading at Mass today, we hear of the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen, our Patron. It’s a passing, fleeting reference and we could be forgiven for wanting more information, especially here, at St Stephen’s. In the Divine Comedy, Dante looks upon a touching scene: the death, by stoning, of a young man who, as he is dying, asks for forgiveness for his persecutors. As he was being stoned, St Stephen cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
‘And him I saw, who bow’d
Heavy with death unto the ground, yet made
His eyes, unfolded upward, gates to Heaven,
Praying forgiveness of the Almighty Sire,
Amidst that cruel conflict, on his foes,
With looks that win compassion to their aim.’
Stephen was one of the first to follow the Apostles. It is believed that he was either Greek, or a Jew educated in Greek culture. What is certain is that he was greatly appreciated by the community in Jerusalem that his name appears first among the seven people chosen as deacons to assist the Apostles in their mission. Some members of the synagogue stirred up the people against him, with the elders and scribes saying he had blasphemed against Moses and against God. In the days following Pentecost, Stephen was hauled before the Sanhedrin, and accused by false witnesses of preaching that Jesus would “destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.”
Saint Stephen then gave a speech – the longest recorded in the Acts of the Apostles – in which he reviewed the history of salvation. God, he said, had prepared for the coming of Jesus, the Righteous One, but the leaders of the people had resisted the Holy Spirit, just as their fathers had persecuted the prophets. Stephen concluded his speech with the words, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This final proclamation cost him dearly. With a loud cry, those present cast him out of the city “and began to stone him.”
This is a theme picked up in the Gospel today as well when Jesus explains who He is and that He is to die. ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.’ These are some of the most quoted words of Jesus. Taken on their own, they are powerful words that speak to all manner of situations. Yet when we consider the situation in which they were first spoken, they reveal a particularity and even greater potency to speak to us and help us.
Jesus spoke these words to his closest disciples at the Last Supper, facing and addressing his imminent death. The enemies of Jesus in Jerusalem had been planning how to kill Jesus for some time. Their plans are now in place. Further, they intend that his death will not just end his life but will utterly humiliate and discredit him. They will make a public spectacle of him as someone rejected and even cursed by God, a blasphemer and a religious charlatan, mad or bad or both. Such a person should not be believed, trusted or followed. They intend that the movement and community Jesus had worked to establish will be killed off with him – and this is the point of the Crucifixion, not that one man be killed, but that those who follow Him should take heed and stop in the tracks, go back to how they were before, keep their heads down and conform, lest this happen to them also.
But Jesus speaks these words embracing His forthcoming death and making it clear that the punishment waiting for Him has no power over Him, because He is the way, the truth and ultimately He is also the source of life. It’s this dynamic certainty that gives Stephen and the other followers of The Way their courage and bravery, the knowledge that life as they have hitherto seen and experienced it is nothing compared to the life that they will have in Christ who they know is truly risen from the dead. If this were not so, we would have never heard this news ourselves, and our lives would not have been changed.
Now, we have to pick up where Stephen left off – to not only change our lives in accordance with His word, but to encourage others to do so as well. Maybe by seeds that we will never see bloom, maybe by words that we never know find their way home, but with complete faith in Him who asks us to be disciples – and disciples are attractive to others because they look like the person they follow in some way, by our way of life, by the words we speak and by the love we share.
If sometimes we wonder why churches are not as popular as they used to be, we can strip that thought back to the beginning – to eleven men who, filled with the Holy Spirit and given courage by Mary Magdalene, went out undaunted to preach and bear witness. It’s because of them that we have heard the good news, so we must never be downhearted and if friends and family think that religion is the cause of sorrow not joy, then what have we shown them of it? What have they learnt from our discipleship? We owe it to ourselves, and to God and to the future of our faith and church to cheer up, to show faith and love in our lives and actions. Alleluia, Christ is risen!