Inexplicably, this line is left off the end of today’s first reading (Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59) on the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr. Also, left off, understandably because of its length, is his long sermon (definitely worth reading chapters six and seven of Acts today) immediately preceding and directly leading to Stephen’s murder.
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606 – 1669), The Stoning of St Stephen, oil on panel (90 × 124 cm) — 1625, Musée des beaux-arts, Lyon
But why this feast the day after Christmas? Well, just as God Incarnate first entered our world over two thousand years ago yesterday, Stephen was the first Christian to enter heaven. And how beautifully he did so! Echoing Jesus on the cross (Lk 23:34), he forgives his killers and then “he fell asleep.” What a wonderful image that evokes. As brutal as his death is, he simply slips from this life in faith waiting to be awakened by Jesus (see Mt 9:18-19, 23-26 and Mark 5:21-24, 35-43) in the next life who will be welcoming him to His Father’s house (Jn 14:2). What greater reward can we ask for after faithfully journeying through this “valley of tears” (see Ps 84:7 — “Baca” means “tears”)? And what greater incentive could there be to remain steadfast in faith, hope and love (1 Cor 13:13)?
May we all emulate Stephen’s full trust in the Lord, like him never backing down from what we believe, whatever the cost. And, in a special way, let us pray for all permanent deacons who find their exemplar in the first deacon. Also, let us not forget those who are in formation for this ministry that they may discern well the vocation that God has chosen for them.