The Word Embodied
(For 7th Sunday of Easter)
“I am coming soon.” (Rev 22:20)
The figure of St. Stephen, the first martyr, emerges in the Easter season just as it does in the days after Christmas. I wonder if there is some kind of ironic warning here. Do we realize what we're getting ourselves into when we so readily celebrate Christ's birth into our world and then his Paschal mystery?
Stephen was a deacon, a person “filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” Utterly open to and reliant upon the victory of Christ, his was a radical discipleship. His murder, which Acts recounts, was the result of a withering challenge he made to those who resisted the message of Christ. In effect, he took on the leaders of his time. It was enough to get anybody killed anywhere.
Perhaps we've all learned more prudence in accommodating to our cultural ideology and its high priests. There is not much of a market for prophets and martyrs when one is getting along so comfortably with the powers and dominions. Could this be the reason why there are so few voices like Stephen's ringing boldly and courageously in our midst to challenge our nation and society?
It would be an unusual thing to hear some young Christian's voice rise above the chorus of diversity and admit: “Well, I believe that human sexuality is sacred and that sexual love is for married lovers; and I am willing to defend my position.” Stephen, where are you?
Or imagine, in the midst of a violent culture, the public profession of a pro-life position that opposes euthanasia, capital punishment (our latest fascination), abortion, and covert military operations—and is not intimidated by the rhetoric of right and left.
Or think of a Catholic university, in this season of graduations, that would not fall all over itself for the opportunity to present a degree to Henry Kissinger or (former) President Clinton. Would there be any questions raised as to whether such an action might be in conflict with crusty institutional credos?
Maybe we've lost our need for martyrs, or at least our stomach for them.
“Don't be such a martyr.” Some Catholics may remember hearing this rejoinder when they pouted as children that they were not getting their own way. Others may remember the martyr complex, that unhappy state of consciousness just short of paranoia, in which they thought everybody was against them.
Martyrdom may have gotten a bad name from the self-pity and paranoia that could be associated with it. But such associations are unfortunate and impoverishing. Martyrdom is anything but self-indulgent and grandiose.
Stephen and other martyrs knew there was something worth dying for (not killing for, which seems to be a more appealing application)—namely, the Christ.
If Christ is indeed the Lord of history, “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end,” then it is not a matter of indifference how he lived and what he taught.
The many martyrs of our history wanted to give their witness to the world.
We might be more inclined to keep it quietly to ourselves. Faith, we're told, is a private thing. So much for martyrs. We have erected a wall of separation, not between church and state, but between faith and public life.
Thus Christ's teachings about money and power are gently and graciously ignored when real power and good money are at stake.
His teachings about forgiveness and love dissolve away when we are confronted with a real enemy.
His warnings about priestly privilege somehow do not apply to us priests.
His concern for the alien and homeless is presumed to be directed to some other group than our undeserving poor.
The robust implications of faith are pocketed away for private examination but not public display. We don't want to cause trouble for the world's business as usual.
Stephen's bold challenge to the world around him is matched by his intrepid personal reliance on Christ. Thus, even as he is being stoned to death he prays with confidence, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He is unafraid to face the challenges of the earth; he is fearless before the stare of death.
And his last words are an equally bold request, that his death not be held against his killers. A book of revelation in himself, Stephen ends it all with “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”
Is this what the young Saul saw in the martyrdom he observed? Was it the daring proclamation or the even more daring trust? Might this have been the bloodshed that became a seed of faith?
Stephen, like all martyrs, took seriously Jesus' priestly prayer in the fourth Gospel. Jesus asked that others would believe in him through his disciples' words of life and deeds of love. He wanted the world to know that he was sent for a reason. His martyrs believed it.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University