“Precious in the sight of the LORD
is the death of his faithful servants.”
Question: Today in Acts Stephen is shown as an obvious example of someone who imitates Jesus to a very great degree – even to using the same words at his martyrdom.
What is the point? Is it that we believe that through this apparently ‘pointless’ death where humanly it doesn’t look like there are any immediate effects of his testimony and sacrifice in words and body, he mystically saves many souls because he participates in a mystical way in Jesus own life?
Sorry it is probably a very basic thing and I know the Church teaches that the blood of the martyrs is seed for new Christians… I just need to make sure I understand at a deeper level.
St. Therese seems, in her letters, to be convinced that this is what she does by loving Jesus – save souls….
The Meaning of the Crucifixion
Answer: Stephen’s life and death contain a multiplicity of meanings for us. But let us first and foremost remember that it is Jesus, and only Jesus, who saves, and this occurs during his Passion, Death and Resurrection. Let us right now contemplate the Crucified Lord, and gaze upon Him, entering more deeply into what is being enacted during these six horrendous hours with Jesus fixed on the wood of the Cross: being God and man, something unique is occurring there: on the one hand He unites himself to us, and on the other He carries us like the Good Shepherd to his own light and love, His Eternal life.
The Crucified Lord has a unique power that we cannot find anywhere else in his life and ministry and in no other religion. Everything is concentrated on the Cross, and we are able to understand all this, of course, only after and because of his resurrection, that is, under its light. He is victorious while being Crucified, and this is why in the Eastern Churches we celebrate his Crucifixion and Death as a true victory over death, sin, darkness and distance from God. On the Cross, He took us from our darkness to his light. It just makes you want to wish the entire world would understand and see the Crucified Lord in a different way. On the Cross there is a total and utter exchange occurring. The Fathers of the Church saw it, contemplated it, and rested in front of the Cross, dwelling there. This wondrous exchange encompasses our giving Him the bitter darkness of our sins and death and Jesus transforming it, elevating it, giving us back Light, Love, Definitive Union with Him. He took our death and gave us his Life.
It is the Crucified Lord, Jesus on the Cross, the Cross itself, which is the unique and most powerful transformer. It takes Evil, sin, death, distance from God, darkness, hatred, pain and transforms them into sweet Divine Life, full of Light and Love … a higher good.
The Saints and many Christians have had this experience, with the result that their understanding of the Cross has changed, and they have come to see it as a true magnet and a place of power and transformation, and not just as a place of suffering and dying. The Cross is powerful, the most powerful place where we can “pitch our tent”; the Cross is the narrow door that can take anything and transform it into a higher new good that is unfathomable.
Once the Cross is transfigured this way for us, once our understanding has changed, we see life and difficulties in a completely different way, and more so, our way of dealing with them undergoes a veritable metamorphosis. Not that the pain will totally go, but it will never remain trapped. There is a possibility of release, a narrow door and narrow path for it to go through and find light and transformative power.
The final word for everything on earth goes to the Crucified and his power. St. Paul in fact says that his life is “offered as a libation.” This is why St. John sees a reality in heaven (see Revelation) that will endure for the whole of Eternity: a lamb, a slaughtered lamb, a lamb in a constant state of exsanguination. Jesus is the Lamb, and this reality never passes, is never finished or ended. It remains. For the whole of Eternity. This reality is not a dark or sad one for it has the power of transformation – it takes Evil and transforms it. Thus, for example, if someone harmed me, the Crucified is capable of helping me, from within, to be victorious over the Evil received. The Crucified will give me a new power, never experienced before, a power capable of devouring the received Evil, making my wounds capable of transforming Evil into sweet honey, a balm that can cure the person who wounded me! This is the true Cross, this is the true Gospel, true Christianity. This is why we kiss the Cross; this is why we contemplate the Cross; this is why we look at it in a different way. This is why we are attracted to it and not to the contrary feel of repulsion toward a horrendous suffering and death. This is why St. John in his Gospel has a completely different understanding of the Lord’s Passion: he calls it “glorification,” for he sees through the horror to God’s glory during the Passion, Crucifixion and death.
In this light is it possible for us to understand Christianity in any way other than that of the Passion? A more diluted one? If so, we would indeed be missing the core of Christianity… the core without the Passion, Crucifixion and Death would be empty.
Stephen, like any other Christian of his time knew all this. It is Jesus who saves, but He calls us to follow Him. He wants us not only to follow Him and reach union with Him but with Him to bear spiritual children for Eternity.
The Meaning of Stephen’s Death
What is the meaning of his martyrdom? Let us try to find the essential points:
1- Every Christian has to carry his cross and follow Jesus till the end.
To “follow Jesus” means that our life is called to be conformed to Jesus’ life and death.
We are called to be united to Him to the point that He lives and acts with us and through us. In this sense we are a living extension of Christ on earth. The disciple is called to be like his Master. Hence, we are also called to have this experience of St. Paul: “it is not me who lives, it is Christ in me (who lives, suffers and dies)”. Paul also says that he “offered [his] life as a libation”.
2- Every Christian reaches a crucial point (one or more times in his life) where he is called to bear witness to Christ before others or in a difficult situation. This is very important, as it was to give testimony to the Truth that Jesus sent us out to “bear witness.”
This is of course a restrictive understanding of “bearing witness”. Of course, we have also the wider one (see number 1 above).
3- In Stephen, Christ continues his Passion on earth. It is Christ in Stephen who suffers and continues to save the World. It is not a new Passion though; it is the same and unique Passion that occurred once and for ever that continues to be alive in Jesus’ Body.
It is striking to see documents of the early life of the Church, that is, the accounts of the martyrs like Stephen.
In the first century accounts of Martyrdom, then, the authors tended to follow the same “patron” (boss or canvas) of St. Stephen’s martyrdom and death. Through the martyr they saw Christ himself, the main subject of martyrdom, suffering in the martyr and dying. As Pascal put it: Christ is still in agony and will continue to be in agony till the end of times.
It is important that martyrdom is appreciated as the true coronation of a Christian life, that is, the desirable death, where the disciple becomes totally conformed to his Master. This is reflected in the very name “Stephen” which means “crown” in Greek. “To bear witness” or “to die as a martyr” further endorse this meaning as the same words are used in Greek as in other languages.
Remember the core of the Gospel is revealed in the following sayings, not to mention many more as well:
“there is not greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends”, namely, those we love.
“The disciple will be like the master.”
“I gave you an example so you should do like I did.”
“You will bear witness to me.”
“Love each other as I have loved you (I died for you).”
“Love your brothers as Christ loved his bride.”
4- Stephen dies Jesus’ way, offering his life, forgiving, and by forgiving he obtains Saul’s conversion. One dies the other one is born. The fruitfulness of the Cross is shown, in an almost instantaneous way: Stephen obtains Saul’s conversion and not only Paul’s, but the numberless converts he subsequently gathered for Christ.
Among the Saints, Therese knows instinctively all the above, and it is reinforced by the Carmelite way of life, as set up by St. Teresa of Avila (see Way of Perfection Chapters 1 and 3), in which praying for Priests is one of its main duties. As in the case of Stephen and Paul, here we see how through one priest prayed for, one gains many souls! So you work “wholesale”. What a bargain!
Therese, to paraphrase her, knows that for a Carmelite nun, it is by prayer and sacrifice only that one can gain souls, not by writing letters or giving talks. She knows that only by love alone can souls be obtained – only by love alone is love repaid. She was taught by the Holy Spirit how to attract souls, but just by being increasingly transformed by love (see end of Manuscript C when she explains the prayer: “draw me and we will run”, the leaver and fulcrum). She yearned to die as martyr! This was her dream. She understood that real martyrdom is available to all without the necessity of actually dying. She understood her illness and her trial as being a martyrdom and an imitation of Christ! She understood that Love, divine love, is the only force that can bring about this martyrdom that she really yearned for (see the wording of her Act of Oblation: “may this martyrdom (of love)…”). She was happy to see that in her sufferings her end would be similar to Jesus’ end, that is, in suffering. She yearned for a death like Jesus’ Death, in true St. John of the Cross understanding of what a real Christian death should consist of: a death of love (see Living Flame commentary of the last verse of the first stanza).