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Saint Stephen – December 26th – Octave – Christmas
Readings: Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59; Mt 10:17-22.
Reading 1 (Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59):
Stephen, filled with grace and power,
was working great wonders and signs among the people.
Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen,
Cyrenians, and Alexandrians,
and people from Cilicia and Asia,
came forward and debated with Stephen,
but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.
When they heard this, they were infuriated,
and they ground their teeth at him.
But he, 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.”
But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears,
and rushed upon him together.
They threw him out of the city and began to stone him.
The witnesses laid down their cloaks
at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As they were stoning Stephen, he called out
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Gospel (Mt 10:17-22):
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Beware of men, for they will hand you over to courts
and scourge you in their synagogues,
and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake
as a witness before them and the pagans.
When they hand you over,
do not worry about how you are to speak
or what you are to say.
You will be given at that moment what you are to say.
For it will not be you who speak
but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Brother will hand over brother to death,
and the father his child;
children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but whoever endures to the end will be saved.”
I. THEME: St. Stephen is the first martyr who poured out his blood to witness for Christ.
Some people asked why does the Church celebrate St. Stephen’s Memorial Day right after the Christmas when people are still celebrating Christ’s birthday? The answer might be because the Church wants to unite Christ’s Incarnation with Christian’s duty; that means: the Christmas’ joy is that people has seen the salvation; but to achieve salvation, people must show their faith in the Son. People have a tendency to go back to their normal life after joyful and holy Christmas. The Church wants to remind the faithful their duty to be Christ’s witnesses in daily life.
Today readings center around to be witnesses for Christ. In the first reading, the Acts reported St. Stephen’s martyr, the first witness who died for Christ. In the basilica of St. Stephen in Jerusalem which belongs to the “École Biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem” of the Dominican Order, one can see three panels of pictures in the sanctuary: one is John Baptist who pointed his hand into Christ, the center panel, and said: “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The other panel is St. Stephen who also pointed to Christ and said: “This is the One who I sacrificed my life for him.” In the Gospel, Jesus foretold the price which his disciples are going to pay: “Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles.”
1/ Reading I: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
1.1/ St. Stephen’s life: He was one of the first seven deacons who were chosen to help the apostles. The reason why the apostles needed to have deacons was in order for them to dedicate their whole time for praying and preaching (Acts 6:1-6). The conditions to become a deacon are one must have a good reputation, full of spirit and wise. We don’t know much about his life. His name, Stephanos, in Greek means “a crown.” In the tombstone found in his tomb had the word “Kelil,” an Aramaic word for Greek’s stephanos. It might be his original name.
No one knew the place where he was stoned to death. Some said it was at the Stephen’s gate of Jerusalem city. This is not certain because we couldn’t find any historical proof; moreover, today’s city gates were rebuilt from 16th century by Muslims. The more certain historical source is based on the new discovery of archeology in the Holy Land, his remaining was reserved at the Basilica of St. Stephen in the École Biblique of the Dominican Order. The new basilica was built on the foundation of the old Byzantine church, which was built in 431 A.D. by Juvenal, bishop of Jerusalem, with the help of queen Eudocia. St. Cyril, the Administrator of Alexandria, dedicated this church on May 15th, 439 A.D. During the ceremony, St. Cyril commanded to move the remaining of St. Stephen from a church on Mt. Zion which kept his remaining for 24 years, to this church. Queen Eudocia was also buried at this church.
The Acts gave a sketch of St. Stephen’s life as follows: “Stephen was filled with grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, arose and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” Because they couldn’t win over him in argument, they decided to use force to win. They used false witnesses to accuse him committed blasphemy against Moses and God in order to have a proof to stone him to death (Acts 6:14).
1.2/ St. Stephen’s martyr: The Acts reported this event as follows: “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into 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. “But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.””
2/ Gospel: He who endures to the end will be saved.
2.1/ If they persecuted me, they shall also persecute you: Jesus warned his disciples what are going to happen to them: “Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles.” The purpose of persecution is for his disciples to have an opportunity to witness for him. People are easy convinced when they see the courageous attitudes of those who despise death. This might be the reason why Tertullian, who in the year 197 wrote: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” One other author added “and the yeast that arises the kingdom of God.” History shows where the persecution is fierce, that place has more Christians.
2.2/ The promise of the Holy Spirit’s work: Jesus continued to say to his disciples: “When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” There were many martyrs whose bodies were weak, whose voices were timid; but when they were interrogated by kings and soldiers, courageously and wisely spoke out wisdom words that encouraged generation after generation.
Jesus also warned: Their enemies weren’t only people from outside but also those from inside: “Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
The enemies of Christians can kill bodies but can’t touch the souls of Jesus’ disciples. He encouraged them: “Be courage, because I have won over the world.” And he promised to give salvation for those who are faithful: “But he who endures to the end will be saved.”
III. APPLICATION IN LIFE:
– Salvation belongs to people when Christ incarnated and sacrificed himself on the cross. However, to inherit this salvation we must show our faith in Christ during our life in this world.
– Our duties are to preach and to witness for God’s love, so people can recognize our witness and believe in him. In witnessing for the truth, we shall face sufferings, trials and opposition; but Christ promised us that he shall be with us, and the Holy Spirit will help us to overcome all.