by Dan Loch
In the backstory to Stephen’s martyrdom in the First Reading today, he is taken before the Sanhedrin for blasphemy (Acts 6:8-15 to 7:1-54). He preaches all of salvation history and then calls the Sanhedrin stiff-necked, uncircumcised, murderers, and disobedient to the Law. Ouch! Cover your ears! Then we hear of the glorious death of Stephen, the first martyr.
“Glorious”? How so? Told this story by Sister Mary Armbuster when I was in grade school, my young mind saw only the glory of Stephen’s sacrifice. He paid the price for what he believed. I can do that! After all, I had read “A Man on Fire,” a children’s life of St. Paul, so I knew who this Saul was who watched the coats. I knew he became St. Paul. Even more glorious! Cue background music: “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord.”
Today I see a bit deeper: The death of Stephen is parallel to the death of Jesus. Luke has Stephen, like Jesus, ask God to forgive the people killing him. As Stephen dies, he says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” which is much like Jesus’ saying on the Cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Stephen patterns his life after that of Jesus and he is sure Jesus is standing with him. Still pretty darn glorious!
Flash forward to the recent past. Millions of Irish Catholics came to the US in the late 19th century because of the Irish Potato Famine. Children threw stones at Irish children while yelling “Micks” or “Papists”. Many Catholics used to treat other Catholics who entered into “mixed marriages” as pariahs. The world was simply Catholic and non-Catholic. Families were divided and jobs, education, and friendship were out of the question because you fell in love with a Protestant or, worse, a Jew. Sister Mary Armbuster pounded it into the child-me that all those outside the Roman Catholic Church were going to have a tough time getting into heaven. Talk about throwing
mental rocks! Then the Second Vatican Council ushered in ecumenical dialogues and meetings and throwing mental stones at non-Catholics became passé.
And that get us to today’s Gospel, the seventh and last Sunday of the Easter season. It is the climax of the long discourse Jesus gives at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. It can seem hard to understand. I sure did not know what it meant when I was a young boy. But, and this is important, this Gospel includes us! Jesus speaks directly to his Father in prayer and we get to overhear it. Joined to Jesus in faith, we share in His glory, share in the union of Jesus and his Father. Our love for one another, the “oneness,” the unity, between the disciples – and between us – for which Jesus prays, is to be a reflection, an extension, of the love that exists between the Father and the Son. Our love for one another must take on that role.
Jesus prays that those who do not know God will do so through the witness of we believers. A witness not only of faith, but also of actions, deeds. And we can do it, because Jesus is rooting for us, praying for us, being with us. We can be Stephen. We can be Jesus to the world. We can take care of one another. Don’t throw rocks; throw bread. Just do it! We can love one another as Jesus loves us. Be unafraid to be Christian. We do it, as Fr. Mike said last Sunday, by changing a diaper, by taking care of an ailing mother, by caring for those in need. Glorious!