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The Martyrdom of St. Stephen

Matthew Harrison

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

[Stephen said:] You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did you ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.When they [the Council] heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he said this he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. (Acts 7:51-8:1)
Today's first reading, from chapter seven of the Acts of the Apostle is certainly not lacking in drama! Just before thisThe Martyrdom of St. Stephen scene, Stephen addresses the Council, and retells God's merciful relationship with his people; through Abraham, Moses, David and others. The early Church deacon then criticizes the Council, a move which costs him his life.
As per usual with the Acts of the Apostles, this story captivates me from start to finish! I am amazed by the fervor of Stephen and his willingness to give his life for Christ. I am also particularly impressed by his last line regarding his executioners: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
Now, chances are, we in Toronto, in Ontario, in Canada, are not going to face a martyrdom like Stephen did. But we do experience many daily opportunities to forgive and forget. I mean, I get irritated by a mistaken bump from the person beside me on the subway, and here a man is stoned to death, and he is so willing to forgive the sins of his persecutors!
This is, of course, a beautiful example of how to behave as a Christian -- to pardon those who hurt us. Not only is it more Christ-like, but it is healthier. I suspect that there is a huge amount of suffering and sickness in our lives because of our inability to forgive (perceived) wrongs done to us -- be it by a stranger, or by a loved one. I find in cases where I just can't seem to pardon someone, I pray: "Lord, I'm having a really hard time dealing with this, I offer it to you, I place it in your hands, soothe me, calm my mind, and touch my heart." And I pray for the person who has offended me: not that they will realize the harm they have done to me, but I pray for their needs and intentions. One priest also suggested to me once to entrust myself to their prayers. It's a humbling act, that can help to diffuse anger.
Today, as we reflect on the martyrdom of Stephen let's make an effort to forgive someone in our life who has harmed us; to say "I'm sorry," and sincerely mean it. To heal wounds. To drop the stones from our hands, and respond instead with a kind word, or a gesture of love.
St. Stephen, pray for us!

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