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Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr

Sunday, December 25, 2016



Acts 6:8-10;7:54-59; Ps 31:3cd-4,6,8ab,16bc,17; Mt 10:17-22
“Let your face shine upon your servant.”

“Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your kindness.” We can be sure that this prayer from Psalm 31 was deep within the heart of Saint Stephen. Also, we can be sure that it is a dangerous prayer. If the Lord’s face shines upon his servant, then those who hate the Lord will hate his servant even more. Call it envy, or anger, or whatever, the bright glory of the face of the Lord provokes a strong reaction, and sometimes that reaction is violent and deadly. Only if we believe, as did the Psalmist and the First Martyr, that the Lord will save us in his kindness could we dare to ask him to let his face shine upon us. The brightness of the Incarnate One shines upon all the children of God as we celebrate the octave of his Nativity. It is this brightness that is bound to get us into trouble. People will see the joy of the Lord upon our faces and hear our Christmas gladness in laughter and singing. This may evoke some knee jerk reactions of ridicule or even mild persecution. Some may even ask, “What makes you so happy?” Only if we have taken refuge in the LORD our stronghold and safety, our rock and fortress, will we continue to rejoice because of his incarnation. Then and only then will the Face of The LORD be seen in all its brightness. Then and only then will the LORD rescue us from our enemies and persecutors. Even when his fellow Jews were infuriated and ground their teeth at him, Saint Stephen looked up intently and beheld the glory for which he was willing to die in order to witness. At such times we take comfort in the Lord’s promise in today’s gospel that the Holy Spirit will give us the words we need and the courage to speak. Our witness cannot be less courageous or less powerful.

Christmas gatherings often provide many opportunities to engage in discussions or even debates about the gospel. Perhaps that’s one reason the Liturgy offers us a glimpse of the Martyr Stephen so soon after Christmas. Perhaps we too need to have the confidence and courage of Saint Stephen in all our holiday conversations. There will be moments of awkward pauses and strained responses with people we love and seldom see. Yet, such lack of comfort is no excuse for walking away from yet another opportunity to give a reason for the hope we have in Christ, our newborn king. Even a simple witness to our faith may seem so unnatural and so foreign. Yet, like Saint Stephen we have come to know him whom we celebrate with such festivity. Unlike Saint Stephen we may not be called to martyrdom, but we are called to witness. This kind of sharing good news will seem foreign and awkward only if we never make any effort. Indeed it is the promise of Christ that we will have whatever we need to make such a simple effort to witness. The longer we put it off the more difficult it will be, until we find ourselves on our deathbed. There and then, we will have many things to say, and it will be left unsaid and unspeakable if we do not begin now sharing what is most important, what makes us tick, what we have to live and die for—the Lord Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of His Father. The story of Saint Stephen’s martyrdom from the Acts of the Apostles brings a certain level of maturity into our Christmas gatherings. Perhaps this is the year we begin to hear the call to witness and grow through the initial awkwardness into becoming a clear and confident member of the Body of Christ. Then and only then, will we pray with authenticity, “Lord Jesus into your hands I commend my spirit!”

The initial strangeness of giving witness to our faith among our family and friends is nothing compared to the scene the Lord Jesus describes in today’s gospel. The Lord Jesus warns his disciples in every age to “beware of men” for they will drag you before religious and worldly powers to demand that you give a witness. Even as he warns his disciples, he reassures them. When we are handed over to be witnesses we need not worry about our theology or our rhetorical skills. As the Lord Jesus explains, “For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” What will make us confident and courageous is our deep and growing faith in the Lord Jesus, in his Father and ours, and in the Holy Spirit, the Counselor constantly at our side. Even the most painful betrayals possible will not overwhelm us with fear or self-pity. We will be able to speak a powerful witness even though family and friends ridicule and reject us. Even the envy or hatred we experience for the sake of His Name will strengthen us in our resolve and enable us to endure to the end. This is the courage of those who share fellowship with the saints and martyrs. Such is the courage of those who embrace the cross and live in the power of the resurrection of the King of Glory. He is the One who makes himself our food and drink, and he transforms us from glory to glory.

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