Commentary on the Readings
St. Stephen, the first martyr – December 26
The same fate for Master and disciple
Entering the church today we perceive a different climate from that of Christmas Day. The white vestments—white as the angel’s who announced to the shepherds a great joy: “Today a Savior has been born to you in David’s town” (Lk 2:11)—have been replaced by red ones.
The announcement of the birth of the Savior gladdened us and the sweet pastoral melodies lulled us, then the liturgy presents us with the bloodshed of the first martyr. It looks like a tacky combination. Yet, to understand Christmas, we must go beyond the pagan folklore that marked this festival around the world.
The Christmas of the liturgy has little to do with the sapling poetry, the lights and the music box and, even less, with the holidays on exotic beaches. It is God’s wager who, after speaking to people through the wonders of creation and the prophets, now really bets everything. In a gesture of supreme love, he offers his Son to the world.
From the first centuries, Christmas was linked to Easter. In the newborn child, the community of believers is immediately invited to contemplate the one who will offer himself on the cross and rise again in glory.
Andrei Rublev understood it very well. While in Moscow, around 1420, he painted the famous icon of the Nativity. He portrayed the Child of the manger with the proportions of an adult, wrapped in bandages of death and lying in a manger, which is actually a stone tomb. In the background, he depicted a gaping, dark cave: the tomb from which Jesus would one day come to defeat death and radiate upon the world the light of the resurrection.
The Church introduced the Feast of St Stephen to make us understand the link between Christmas and Easter. In the passion and death of the first martyr, we can already see the events of Easter. Taking the child in his arms, Simeon announced: “Know this, your son is a sign, a sign established for the falling and rising of many in Israel, a sign of contradiction; so that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-35). Aware of the conflict that his message would have caused in the world, Jesus said one day: “I have come not to bring peace, but rather division” (Lk 12:51).
In front of him, there will always be some who will line up for love and peace and others will opt for hatred and violence. Some who will advocate truth and justice while still others will choose the falsity and abuse. Some will prefer to behave like wolves and others will accept the destiny that unites them to the Lamb. Only these will leave a bright trace in history.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“He is born to offer his own life as a gift: It is the message of the Child of Bethlehem.”
In reading this passage one has the distinct feeling of being in front of a well-known story, a representation, faithful in details, of the events of the passion and death of Jesus.
The author of Acts was not interested in transmitting accurate information about how the first martyr was killed. His goal was different: to establish a parallel between Jesus and Stephen, to highlight the fact that, in every authentic disciple the image of the Master must be reproduced. We take note then of the details of this similarity, and we try to reflect and to see if they transpire today through our community.
Jesus—the evangelist Luke recalls—“increased in wisdom and in divine and human favor” (Lk 2:40,52). Like the Master, Stephen, too, was full of wisdom (v. 10) and grace (v. 8) and did great wonders and signs among the people (v. 8). In Stephen, it is therefore possible to see similarities with the Master’s figure: both were moved by the same Spirit and performed the same extraordinary works.
With the power of the word, Jesus introduced into the world the Kingdom of God. His word was effective, divine, therefore, irresistible and no evil power was able to oppose and frustrate it. Stephen’s word was also equipped with the same force. No one “could match the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke” (v. 10). Called to bear witness to Christ, the disciple should not worry about what to say or how to respond. It was sufficient to let himself be guided by the voice of the Spirit. Jesus assured: “At that moment, I will give you the words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Lk 21:15).
Stephen experienced it: no animosity, but firmly he denounced—as Jesus also did—the false image of God preached by the spiritual leaders of Israel, the futility of the sacrifices offered in the Temple and of the same holy place because the Lord does not dwell in houses made by human hands. Finally, he turned to his accusers a provocative question: “Was there a prophet whom your ancestors did not persecute?” (Acts 7:52).
The charges are the same: Jesus, like Stephen, was indicted as a transgressor of the law, as a blasphemer against God (Mt 26:65) and against the temple (Mk 14:58). The accusers are the same: the people, the elders, and the scribes. The two were tried before the high priest and the Sanhedrin and, in both cases, false witnesses came into the scene (Mk 14:57).
It is especially at the moment of death that we find the parallels between Jesus and Stephen. The calls are numerous and explicit. Stephen completed his long indictment without being interrupted (Acts 7:1-54). His interlocutors did not react, although he was clear and explicit in formulating his convictions. At some point, however, his accusers got furious. It happened when he proclaimed his faith in the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.
The Master also has provoked the wrath of the Sanhedrin when he announced the vision of the Son of Man “seated at the right hand of God” (Mt 26:64-67). However, the difference is significant: Stephen sees the Son of Man not seated (as we, too, say in the Creed), but standing, “standing on the right hand of God.” It is because he is the Risen One (Rev 1:13; 2:1).
It is this faith in the Risen One that gave the disciple the courage to witness the Gospel even to the gift of life. Rejecting the religious institution of his people, Jesus was led out of the holy city and executed in an unclean place (Lk 23:26; 20:15). Stephen was also dragged outside the city and stoned to death outside the walls. Tradition places his martyrdom along the Kidron Valley, not far from the current Lions’ Gate. The expulsion, excommunication, exclusion is the weapon that the institution habitually uses. When challenged by innovative proposals, it becomes repressive.
The most moving parallelism we can grasp is in the two prayers that Jesus and Stephen uttered before dying. The Master turns to God saying: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:34,46). From the mouth of the disciple, we find an almost identical prayer. Stephen exclaims: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit;” then, bending his knees, emits, as the Master (cf. Lk 23:46), a loud cry: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” and falls asleep in the Lord.
It’s enough to make us guess the message that the author of Acts wants to communicate to the Christians of his community—sorely tried by persecution—and to us today: the disciple cannot expect a destiny different from that of the Master. Indeed, in the disciple who looks like a lamb among wolves is Jesus himself who continues to offer his own life.
Jesus did not delude his disciples. He has not promised honors and achievements; he did not assure them of the approval and consent of people. He repeated insistently and clearly that adherence to him entails persecution: “If the head of the family has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of the family!” (Mt 10:25). And again: “People will lay their hands on you and persecute you; you will be delivered to the synagogues and put in prison, and for my sake will be brought before kings and governors” (Lk 21:12); “When they persecute you in one town flee to the next” (Mt 10:23); “The wisdom of God also said: I will send prophets and apostles, and this people will kill and persecute some of them. But the present generation will have to answer for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the foundation of the world” (Lk 11:49-50).
Persecution is the uniform that distinguishes the disciple. Paul is quite explicit: “All who want to serve God in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). Why? We would expect that a Christian—a messenger of peace and hope—be welcomed with open arms, with joy and gratitude. Instead, the proclamation of the gospel creates conflicts. The ancient world is incompatible with the kingdom of God and does not surrender peacefully; it reacts by attacking those who want it to disappear.
Christ paid with his life for fidelity to his mission and his disciples cannot expect a different treatment: “The servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn 15:20).
How to behave when you are harassed because of the gospel? This is what Jesus suggests to us.
The first recommendation is: Be on your guard with people! (v. 17). It seems a warning to trust no one, to see enemies everywhere. But it is not so. Jesus warns: “They will hand you over to their courts, and they will flog you….” It will happen, of course, but be careful because at that time a serious danger will be on you: you will be tempted to accept the principles and conduct of those in power, of those who will be enjoying the ephemeral but seductive success. When one fails to receive the approval of what he does, when he feels being hostaged, isolated, marginalized, one could be persuaded to refrain from expressing his belief.
This is the danger that we must be careful of. The persecution will offer an opportunity not to be missed: to give witness to one’s own faith (v. 18). It is inevitable that, in the persecuted, the doubt arises that the work for which one stakes one’s life could be destroyed by the overwhelming forces of evil. On one’s lips, the lament of the servant of the Lord will emerge spontaneously: “I have labored in vain and spent my strength for nothing” (Is 49:4).
How to free the disciples from fear of defeat that grips also the hearts of the most convinced believers? The answer is found in the death of Stephen: the persecution did not destroy the seed of the gospel, but it has also encouraged its diffusion: “This was the beginning of a great persecution against the Church in Jerusalem. All except the apostles were scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria. Saul meanwhile was trying to destroy the Church; he entered house after house and dragged off men and women and had them put to jail. At the same time, those who were scattered abroad went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:1,3-4). Wherever they went, these “fugitives” were preaching the word of God.
Philip first joins the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot and announces Christ. Then he becomes an apostle in Samaria and along the coast of Gaza (Acts 8). Others head toward Syria and find refuge in Antioch initiating a fervent community that will play a decisive role in the spread of the Gospel (Acts 11:19-21).
There is no better time than the persecution to show by their lives that they really believe in the power of love and forgiveness and that eschews all forms of hatred, resentment, and violence. It is the moment when the disciple is called to put into practice the words of the Master: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44), and those of Paul: “Bless those who persecute you” (Rom 12:14). Persecution does not end the work of God but causes its purification, conversion, and growth.
Do not worry about what you are to say (vv. 19-20). A Christian is a gentle person who has at his disposal a unique weapon: the word entrusted to him by the Master. It is a weapon that could be used incorrectly.
Recommending not preparing one’s speech, Jesus warns against the danger entrenched in defense of one’s own positions or to start attacking those who oppose. The disciple is not called upon to assert himself but to proclaim the gospel. He must let the Spirit of the Father, which is in him, speak and the Spirit will speak but words of love, peace, and reconciliation. “Do not prepare your defense” simply means: when you are called to respond to your persecutors, be inspired by the Gospel, not your thoughts or good human sense.
Stand firm to the end (vv. 21-22). The persecuted disciple should stand firm, as one who, though crushed under a huge weight, does not yield. He endures as one who keeps up to an enemy who attacks him in forces. With whom can a Christian be compared? Who are his opponents? Against which antagonist is he called to fight? Certainly not against the persecutors. These are brothers and sisters to love and to lead to Christ. The enemies that can do harm are not outside but inside him. They are the impulses of hatred, revenge, and resentment; it is the desire to see, one day, his persecutors confused and humiliated.
The disciple should resist this temptation until the end, that is, until the day when the Lord will shine his light, and the truth triumphs. And if he realizes that he can no longer hold a confrontation, can he get out of the tension by escaping? In the verse immediately following the passage that is proposed to us today, Jesus seems to leave an open way out. He recommends: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Mt 10:23).
The Christian does not flee, nor seek confrontation. He proposes the message of life but does not impose. If he is refused, he does not insist to the point of irritating and annoying them. He will bring the gospel to others, but without allowing himself to find a quiet corner to be left in peace. The disciple, in any part of the world he goes, will always encounter problems. There are so many places where, even today, the consistency with the Gospel is paid with one’s life.
We do not happen to fall victim to violent persecution as those faced by the first disciples and many Christians today. Though not bloody, but subtle and painful, persecution accompanies the life of every disciple. Think of the young person mocked by his peers because he does not adapt his behavior to the “current morality,” of the honest clerk who is not promoted because he refuses to compromise, of one who sees his own apostolic efforts thwarted by envy or by the retrograde and less evangelical mentality of his own brothers in faith.
Those who suffer this persecution are tempted to react aggressively, to return evil for evil. If he yields to this temptation he would be a loser. Only those who have the strength to give life receive from God, like Stephen, the palm of the winner.