“Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man called Saul” (read Acts 6:8–15; 7:55–60)
Stephen is one of the seven deacons. Chosen in order to serve at the table of the poor, they are also at the service of the Word like the Apostles. They are the ones who take the Word outside Jerusalem. Whoever meets with Jesus becomes “apostle,” sent to announce all that the Lord has done on his behalf and the mercy God has used to him (Matthew 5:19).
Martyr means witness. Stephen is the first who witnesses his faith by means of his life. John the Baptist’s martyrdom, we come to know by a delayed report, but the one of Stephen, like Jesus’, is “live” in the Acts. Christian tradition is summed up in “Jesus’ body, given for us” (1 Corinthians 11:23ff). In Him, every promise is fulfilled: God gives Himself to us.
Stephen is the living tradition. In him Jesus’ story continues. He, like his Master and Lord, witnesses a love that is stronger than death. His death is the giving of his life for the brethren who are killing him. His countenance, transfigured by the Word he embodies, is a pledge of resurrection. We are in the heart of the Gospel.
His martyrdom is the climax of early Christianity. The gift of self that he accomplishes tops up the Apostles’ witness in Jerusalem. It is also fertile seed from which Paul, missionary to the pagans, will spring up. The Church is born of the martyrs’ blood. Our religion is not made up of laws, doctrines or liturgies. It is a person! Not the Pope or the charismatic leader, but Jesus. A Christian is whoever loves Jesus and all the brethren, near and far, more than life itself.
Humanity is rescued by the martyrs: in a world deprived of values, for them life is indeed valued by the gift of life. They remind us of Christian wisdom. Even the thousands of Christians killed in 2012 – by the detainers of “power” and not in order to acquire “power” – show that only Jesus’ cross reveals God and saves us, human beings.
According to Saint Paul, the whole wisdom of God is summarized in Jesus Crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). His evangelizing work aims at “portraying Jesus in front of the eyes” of his listeners (Galatians 3:1). If we contemplate Jesus’ unconditional love, we will answer love with love: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
The fifth Gospel is each one of us. Saint Paul says: “You are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” ( 2 Corinthians 3:3).
Life, either you give it up or you lose it: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake, He will save it” (Luke 9:24). We are all called to martyrdom. Most of the time, it is bloodless. It consists in “carrying our cross daily” (Luke 9:23), the cross of a life at the service of other people. The strength comes to us from the Eucharist, where Jesus commands us: “You must love one another as I have loved you.”
There will always be, as in the past, people killed “for Jesus’ Name.” But there are also others who, “like Jesus,” are killed for defending the poor. And, eventually, there are those who, without knowing it, “are Jesus.” They are that multitude of human beings who are living in inhuman conditions because of the evil intentions of people. We, Christians, share in this unjust situation to a high degree. The members of this “mass of the damned” are the “Lamb of God who carries on Himself the evils of the world.”
They are the suffering “Servant of Yahweh,” “the Crucified Christ,” center of our faith, theological “locus” of any reflection that can be called Christian. As it has always been, and today even in a more evident way, our salvation comes from them. With these people the Lord has identified Himself. “What we do to the least of them, it is to the Lord Himself that we do it” (Matthew 25:40.45).