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Liturgical day: December 26th: Stephen, First Martyr

Gospel text (Mt 10,17-22): Jesus said to his disciples, «Be on your guard with respect to people, for they will hand you over to their courts and they will flog you in their synagogues. You will be brought to trial before rulers and kings because of me, and so you may witness to them and the pagans. But when you are arrested, do not worry about what you are to say and how you are to say it; when the hour comes, you will be given what you are to say. For it is not you who will speak; but it will be the Spirit of your Father in you. Brother will hand over brother to death, and a father his child; children will turn against parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but whoever stands firm to the end will be saved».

«They will hand you over to their courts and they will flog you»

Fr. Josep Mª MASSANA i Mola OFM
(Barcelona, Spain)

Today, just having savored the deep experience of the birth of the Child Jesus, the liturgical scenery has changed over. We might think that celebrating martyrdom does not fit with the Christmas charm... The martyrdom of St. Stephen, whom we revere as the protomartyr of Christianity, falls squarely into the theology of the Incarnate Son of God. Jesus came into this world to shed His Blood for us. Stephen was the first who shed his blood for Jesus. We read in this Gospel as Jesus himself announces it: «you will be handed over to the local councils and (…) you will be brought before as witnesses» (Mt 10:17/18). Precisely "martyr" means exactly this: witness.

This witness in word and deed is given thanks to the force of the Holy Spirit: "the Spirit of your Father (...) will speak though you» (cf. Mt 10; 19). As we can read in the "Acts of the Apostles", Chapter 7, Stephen, brought to court, gives a superb lecture, by making a tour through the Old Testament, while showing that it all converges in the New Testament, in the Person of Jesus. Whatever had been announced by the prophets and taught by the patriarchs is fulfilled in Him.

In the narrative of his martyrdom we can find a beautiful Trinitarian allusion: "Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7.55). His experience was as a taste of the Glory in Heaven. And Stephen died as Jesus did, by forgiving those who sacrificed him: «Lord, do not hold this sin against them» (Acts 7.60); he said his Master's words: "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34)

Let us ask this martyr to let us live like him, full of the Holy Spirit, so that, by fixing our gaze into Heaven, we can see Jesus at the right hand of God. This experience will allow us to already enjoy Heaven, while we still are on Earth.

«They will hand you over to their courts and they will flog you»

+ Fr. Joan BUSQUETS i Masana
(Sabadell, Barcelona, Spain)

Today, the Church celebrates the feast of its first martyr, deacon Saint Stephen. At times, the Gospel seems rather baffling. Only yesterday, it was evoking joy and happiness at the birth of the infant Jesus: «The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen» (Lk 2:20). Today, instead, it alerts us of oncoming dangers: «Be on your guard with respect to people, for they will hand you over to their courts and they will flog you in their synagogues» (Mt 10:17). Those who witness the joy of Christ's birth as shepherds must also be as gallant as Stephen in proclaiming the death and resurrection of the Child of everlasting life.

The same Spirit who overshadowed Mary, the Virgin Mother, to announce God's plan of salvation, the same Spirit who descended upon the Apostles empowering their courage to start proclaiming the Good News —the Gospel— all over the world, is the Spirit who gave strength to that boy to argue with the priests at the synagogue who «were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke» (Acts 6:10).

Saint Stephen was a martyr in life. Martyr means “testimony”. And because of the way he died he was also a martyr. In life, he heeded his Master's words: «Do not worry about what you are to say and how you are to say it; when the hour comes, you will be given what you are to say» (Mt 10:19). «But Stephen, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God» (Acts 7:55). Stephen saw this vision and said so. So too should today's Christians witnesses of Jesus Christ through eyes of faith, fearlessly proclaim him in plain language and courageous action.