Father Steve Grunow offers his homily on this the great feast day of the first of the Church's Martyrs — Saint Stephen, who also happens to be Father Steve's namesake. In a time of continual religious persecution around the world, the witness and martyrdom of St. Stephen speaks to the Church in a powerful way.
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.
Grant, Lord we pray,
that we may imitate what we worship,
and so learn to love even our enemies,
for we celebrate the heavenly birthday
of Saint Stephen, who knew how to pray for his persecutors.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.