Friday, December 26, 2008
"On the day of Stephen..."
Today, we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen, deacon and first Christian martyr.
His name means "wreath" or "crown". Acts 6:8ff describes Stephen as a man who witnessed (Gr. martyr = witness) to others as one completely blessed with God's favor and a person of commanding presence and power. Described also as one marked with great wisdom and the presence of God's Spirit, Stephen spoke with great conviction to his opponents: a religious group of people from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia, who hauled him before the Jewish Council. Their take on what he said amounted, in their minds, to blasphemy, and they lost no time in stirring up others to buy into their interpretation, using some button-pushing terms: "against the Holy Place and the Law", changing "the customs that Moses handed on to us."
When confronted by the high priest to admit whether or not this was so, Stephen launched into a lengthy (according to St. Luke) apologia on Jewish patriarchal history, concluding with a pretty harsh indictment of the leaders' opposition to and execution of Jesus, "the Righteous One", calling them stubborn, "uncircumcised in heart", "forever opposing the Holy Spirit", and non-observers of the Mosaic law.
Little surprise, then, that the opposition reacted with passionate and teeth-grinding anger. Just before they carried out their verdict, which apparently was never in doubt, Stephen seems to have experienced a mystic moment and carried away by the impact of the vision, make the mistake of verbalizing it aloud. That was the last straw! Luke graphically describes what happened next: "...They covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul..." Who, of course, grew up to be Paul, the fearless missionary and defender of the Christian movement, and who later regretted his collusion in Stephen's murder, and experienced his own death as a martyr, an indefatigable witness of Jesus.
In some places, this day of St. Stephen is a time for contact with family and friends, a time when people visit one another. In Slovakia, England, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong, among others, it's observed as a day of good- will, called "Boxing Day", from the tradition of "boxing" gifts for others, especially those in need.
My visiting on St. Stephen's or Boxing Day took place with my daughter and granddaughter, and my soon-to-be son-in-law. He and my daughter announced their engagement at Christmas. He carried on the wonderful and courteous tradition of asking my blessing to marry her. With great joy, especially at the prospect of finally being able to dance with my daughter at her wedding, I responded with and enthusiastic "Yes!" We also "visited" my son, her brother, by phone to announce the glad tidings. That brought joy to him and to us amidst the sadness of his being hospitalized for over a week now, and the prospect of many weeks to come.
With Stephen we, too, pray today: "Lord, receive my spirit."