26th December – St Stephen, Protomartyr

The world’s operating principle for conflict management is ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ or askingsized bed somebody cheekily put it ‘Do to others before they do unto you.’ There doest seem to be much of a difference with those who profess to be Christian. The reason why this is a problem is that Jesus gave us a totally different way to live: You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? Matt 5:43-46.

Today we celebrate the martyrdom of St Stephen who died like Christ forgiving his enemies. His last word was ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ which mirrored Jesus’ last word ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Today’s opening prayer for Mass and concluding prayer for the Divine Office asks that we have grace to live in a like manner: Give us grace, Lord, to practise what we worship.

Teach us to love our enemies as we keep the feast of Saint Stephen, who prayed even for the men who stoned him to death. The reason why Jesus preached and lived a non-violent love of friends and enemies is that central to his redemptive death was responding to evil with goodness and love. In baptism we were immersed into this redemptive death. Thus we too should always respond to evil with goodness and love.

This principle of overcoming evil with Christ-like love is the subject of today’s Office of Readings from St Fulgentius of Ruspe. St Stephen’s witness is credited as the true source of St Paul’s conversion.

Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself.

And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbour made him pray for those who were stoning him. 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.

Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.

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.