Wednesday, December 26, 2012
"Love, The Stairway to Heaven": Reflections on the Feast of St. Stephen, First Martyr.
Yet Christians affirm that God is not absent. We confess that God became human and endures human hardship, pain, and death. As at the first Christmas, God's presence may not be recognized easily. Perhaps we look in the wrong places for God. God is where we do not expect the divine. The Apostle John reflects on God's incarnation and states God came to God's own people, but they did not recognize God. "He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not" (John.1:10-11. RSV).
Today we remember St. Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr. In the midst of Christmas we are confronted with the horrors of humanity. This week, in addition to remembering St. Stephen's death at the hands of a lynch mob, we recall the slaughter of children by a vicious, power hungry ruler (December 28: Holy Innocents). What little we know about Stephen we read in the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 6 and 7). St. Stephen shows us that although we are surrounded by powerful forces of hatred and destruction, we are called to live, even in the midst of death, by ministering to the needs of ordinary people, speaking truth to power,and forgiving instead of seeking revenge.
In his sermon entitled "Armor of Love", St. Fulgentius of Ruspe proclaims that for St. Stephen,
"Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition...
Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defence,- and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey's end.
My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together."
The love ethic of Jesus and embraced by St. Stephen, does not answer to everyone's satisfaction the universal and persistent questions about evil. Yet we know that a child born in an obscure village to a poor young couple has changed how many people confront evil. We may not have lasting and satisfactory answers to that which we experience as evil, but the Christian can assert the mystery of the Incarnation means in part that God is with us (Emmanuel) and calls us to love.
"We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen" (Book of Common Prayer. 1979).