Father Steve offers his homily for your reflection on this the great feast day of the first of the Church's Martyrs- Saint Stephen.
Yesterday, Christmas day, Islamic militants in Nigeria set off numerous car bombs strategically located outside of Christian churches. At last count, 27 people were dead and dozens were injured. The worst devastation happened outside a Catholic church, as the explosion was timed to coincide with the exact moment that the faithful were leaving after attending Mass.
Such atrocities are not limited to Nigeria. A recent survey of religious persecution throughout the world identified Christians as individuals or groups as most frequently targeted by persecution and violence. Our experience might be otherwise, but for many Christians, practicing and professing the Faith is dangerous business (and by "danger" I am not referring to the taunts of some belligerent atheist who foolishly thinks that their agenda is best served by insisting that a legal right to mock the Nativity of Christ means that it is morally appropriate or likely to help their cause).
For example, in the past decade, communities of Christians in the Middle East who can trace their spiritual lineage to the earliest years of the Church's life (indeed, some even to the missionary efforts of the Apostles themselves!) have been deliberately and systematically targeted by acts of violence. These efforts have been an attempt to demoralize and beleaguer, insuring that those Christians who did survive would simply give up and leave. An entire culture that has existed in the Middle East for two millenia is blatently targeted for attack and is now nearly destroyed, and rarely a mumbling word of protest is heard.
Today the Church remembers the witness of Saint Stephen, the first of the Church's martyrs. The cruelty of his death is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, as is the manner in which he died, transforming the violence that took his life into an occasion to give witness to an authority greater than those fallen powers who would rule us by fear and threats.
That the Church remembers Saint Stephen today is no accident. Strip away the sentimentality that obscures the story of Christ's Nativity and one realizes that Christ came into this world, and from the first instant he showed his infant face, he was opposed. Recall yesterday's excerpt from the magnificent prologue to the Gospel of John which testifies that Christ came to his own (us) and his own (again, that means us) "knew him not." But worse than this- we refused him.
And many still do.
The Holy Child came ready for this fight, and the world was willing to fight him. However, the world discovered that it was outmatched and the fallen powers of this world turned against those whom the Holy Child loves. Unable to harm the Body of his human nature any longer, the world strikes at his Body, the Church.
Therefore, when the Church remembers its martyrs, like Saint Stephen, it is not merely out of a concern that the faithful become conversant in the details of Church history. Instead it is to keep us honest- not only about the past, but also about the present. It has never been easy to be a Christian, and being a Christian has always been counter-cultural. If lived authentically, it is lived in defiance against the fallen powers of the world.
This means that like our Savior we have to be ready. We have to learn the strategy that he used to defeat the fallen powers of this world and how he claimed victory when it seemed that these fallen powers could not be defeated. We must learn his strategy- enacted in the witness of Saint Stephen and all the Church's martyrs, past and present- lest in our opposition to the powers of this world, we become just like them.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.