Saturday, December 26, 2009

Into Your Hands, O Lord, I Commend My Spirit!

December 26, 2009
Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr

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.”


Responsorial          Psalm 31
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Be my rock of refuge,
a stronghold to give me safety.
You are my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake you will lead and guide me.
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Into your hands I commend my spirit;
you will redeem me, O LORD, O faithful God.
I will rejoice and be glad because of your mercy.
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Rescue me from the clutches of my enemies and my persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your kindness.
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.


Gospel                  Matthew 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.”

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It is fitting that the first feast celebrated after Christmas should be that of the first person who is recorded as giving his life in the service of his Lord and Master Jesus Christ. We read in the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-10) that Stephen was one of those chosen to attend to the material needs of the Hellenists in the early apostolic community. The Hellenists (the word comes from Hellas, the name of Greece in Greek), refers to Jewish Christians whose native language was Greek and who spoke little or no Aramaic.

However, Stephen was clearly called to a higher ministry beyond the corporal works of mercy. He soon began running into opposition especially from converts to Judaism from other parts of the Roman Empire. These, known as “Freedmen” might have been descendants of Jews carried off to Rome by Pompey in 63 B.C., who were sold into slavery but later released. Or they may have been former slaves who came from Asia Minor or North Africa. When it comes to race or religion, exiles tend to be somewhat more zealous than those who live in the homeland; hence, Hellenist Jews who became Christians were targets of their anger

What truly roused their wrath was that they could never get the better of Stephen in arguments. Like Jesus, he was filled with wisdom, and was guided by the Holy Spirit in all that he said. Eventually, opposition increased to such a level that Stephen was arrested and brought to Jerusalem for trial. While it is not recorded in today’s reading, in the course of his defense, he presented to his judges a lesson in salvation history, clearly demonstrated how Jesus was the expected culmination of everything that had occurred in the course of God’s intervention among his people over the centuries.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen experiences a vision of the glory of God, with Jesus standing at His right hand – the vision of all that he had been saying. “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” The words echo those of Jesus himself during his trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin: “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Almighty” (Matthew 26:64). This was more than the listeners could bear. They stopped their ears as what they considered utter blasphemy. Stephen was seized, dragged out of the city and stoned to death. As he died, again in imitation of his Master, he prayed for forgiveness on his executioners.

The similarities between the trial and death of Stephen and that of Jesus are striking and are clearly deliberate. Stephen is the perfect fulfillment of the challenge that Jesus put to his disciples in the Gospel. He is the perfect disciple.

Finally, the witnesses – who also according to the Jewish Law were his executioners – had left their clothes at the feet of a Pharisee called Saul. Was he actually the instigator of all that was happening? Soon he would show himself a zealous persecutor of these ‘Christians’, these heretical Jews who had to be crushed. But his time would come and there would a miraculous turnaround. Far from being a fanatical Jew, he would become the Apostle of the Gentiles, bringing the Word of Christ not only to his own people but even more to the whole world.  (We know him better by his Latin nickname "Paulus"). 


Today’s passage from Matthew is taken from the discourse which Jesus spoke to his disciples, sending them out on their mission to do the same work that he was doing and instructing them on how to go about it. In today’s section he foretells what they can look forward to. They can expect to be “handed over” (a key word in the gospels) to governors and kings, which will give them an opportunity to bear witness before unbelievers. At the same time, they need not be anxious about what to say and how to say it. The words they need will be given when the time comes. This has been consistently confirmed by people arrested for their beliefs in every generation, even in recent times. They find in themselves a strength and confidence they never knew they had.

Again, Jesus sadly predicts that following him will result in families being broken up – father against child, children against parents. Alas, this prediction, too, has been fulfilled all too often both in the past and in recent times.

“You will be hated by all because of my name,” says Jesus. A strange fate indeed for those whose lives are built on truth, love and peace. Yet a fate only too sadly confirmed right down the centuries to this very day. Jesus had said that all those who wished to follow him would have to take up their cross and go after him. The servant is no greater than his master. "Whoever loves his own life will lose it; whoever hates his own life in this world will keep it for life eternal. Whoever wants to serve me must follow me, so that my servant will be with me where I am" (John 12:25-26). Stephen clearly is a perfect model of such a Christian disciple.

Some of us may find it strange to be talking about such painful things during the Christmas season. If we think like that then it may indicate that we do not fully understand the nature and purpose of Jesus’ birth. We tend to insulate the whole Christmas scene with romanticism and even a great deal of sentimentality but there was nothing sentimental about the Child being born in those rough surroundings, far from home, already ignored by the religious leadership of the day and whose only visitors were a group of poor and marginalized men and some mysterious visitors from out of the "pagan" darkness.

Ahead of this Child was a life of total service ending in the sacrifice of his life in shame and humiliation as the necessary step to our total liberation and sharing in his life. Christmas is the beginning of all this and Stephen is its eloquent symbol.

Adapted from Living Space.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Like many others, I like to think of this season as "merry" and overlook the more sombre side of the matter. Thanks for the reminder of the full picture. (And, nonetheless, merry Christmas to you.)