The figure of St. Stephen the Martyr is very attractive. He was a deacon and charged, along with others, to feed the Greek widows in Jerusalem and probably to perform other practical tasks in that early Church community. He was also a very intelligent and wise man. He was able to put the case eloquently for Jesus as the Son of God, and to do it before the self-same assembly which only months earlier had condemned Jesus himself for making that very claim. We are told at one point in the Acts of the Apostles that, when he was making the case for Jesus, his face appeared to be like that of an angel. All those who resented his speech nonetheless looked intently at him, captivated not just by his words, but by his appearance. It was as if he radiated Christ.
On top of that, Stephen brims over with courage. He does not mince his words before even the most authoritative gathering of the Jewish leadership. They in turn are like King Herod was in relation to John the Baptist: they didn’t like what he said, but still they liked to listen to him.
Our first reading describes to us the dramatic moment when it all went pear-shaped for Stephen. It was when he told everyone the content of what can only be described as a mystical vision. He saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father in heaven. You may recall from the account of the Passion in St. Luke that Jesus himself had used similar language concerning himself: “From now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the Power of God.” When Jesus had said that, he effectively signed his own death sentence. He was saying that he was equal to God, a statement the Jews condemned as blasphemy. So, it’s no different for Stephen: he, too, is condemned to death for reiterating the blasphemy of Jesus. It was almost as if Jesus, from heaven, was hoping that, if they heard it a second time from the mouth of someone like Stephen, the Jews might reconsider, might at last believe. Alas, it was not to be.
But what gave Stephen the courage to witness to Jesus in this powerful yet fatal way? The reading tells us that Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” In other words, Stephen did not witness merely to the message he had heard and believed about Jesus being the Son of God. No, the Spirit of Jesus gave Stephen the gift of actually experiencing Jesus (our language here is limited in its capacity to express such ineffable things). You could say that the Spirit gave the person of Stephen the grace of experiencing the person of Jesus. All of the doctrine Stephen had heard from the Apostles concerning Jesus, vital though it was, only came alive in the encounter with Jesus.
The history of the Church is full of martyrs who died for this or that truth of the Catholic faith. Most of them died because they believed that Jesus is the Son of God. There are other martyrs who died for the Sunday obligation to go to Mass, or for the primacy of the Pope, or for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or to defend one or other of the ten commandments. But all martyrs gave their lives because their faith did not remain as an intellectual or academic exercise, as a repetition of formulae; rather, their faith had brought them through the Spirit so to experience the person of Christ that he mattered more to them than their own lives.
Faith certainly requires us to think, but is not exhausted in thinking. Faith ultimately demands our entire life; indeed, it gives us the life of God. Jesus taught that whoever believes in him has eternal life. During his ministry, he had many intellectual debates with the Jewish intelligentsia, but he was always left frustrated, indeed in the end angry, that they never went any deeper than their minds. Our intelligence is surely one of the greatest gifts the Lord has given us but, instead of leading us deeper to open our deepest heart and soul to God, it can get in the way. Knowledge is power; we like power and the control it gives us. But unless we are careful, that very power can prevent us from opening out completely in humility and obedience to God. Faith in the end demands a letting go of control.
In Stephen, we see someone whose intelligence was second to none. Yet he let it lead him in the Holy Spirit to a deep mystical experience of Jesus which in turn freed him to sacrifice his life for Jesus. It is frequently said in the Church today that we need more saints, more martyrs, and I agree. What that is saying is that, rather than look to others to be those saints, we ourselves need to ask for the grace of a deeper personal experience of Christ, one that bowls us over, one that cuts across our prejudices and securities, however sophisticated or enlightened we may think they are. Catholicism is not primarily an intellectual pursuit, but a path to open up the whole of my person and life to the whole of the person and life of Jesus. Christ calls us to go beyond where we are until we are with him, from the depths of our mind to the depths of our heart, from the soles of our feet to the soul of our being.
May Stephen’s courage encourage us to ask for the grace to experience deeply and personally the person of Jesus Christ. In surrendering ourselves totally to him we will not only not lose ourselves but find ourselves standing with him at the right hand of God.