Dec 26 – Feast of St. Stephen, protomartyr
Stephen is the first martyr. He was one of the deacons appointed by the Apostles to organize the distribution of food to the poor. He performed many miracles and confounded the Jews in disputation. They fabricated false charges against him. At his trial he preached the risen Christ to them, so they stoned him to death. He prayed for his persecutors as he was dying. One of them, Saul of Tarsus, who was looking after the cloaks of the stone-throwers, was later converted and became the great missionary St Paul.
Stephen was filled with grace and power and began to work miracles and great signs among the people. But then certain people came forward to debate with Stephen, some from Cyrene and Alexandria who were members of the synagogue called the Synagogue of Freedmen, and others from Cilicia and Asia. They found they could not get the better of him because of his wisdom, and because it was the Spirit that prompted what he said. They were infuriated when they heard this, and ground their teeth at him.
But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. ‘I can see heaven thrown open’ he said ‘and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this all the members of the council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands; then they all rushed at him, sent him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul. As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Beware of men: they will hand you over to sanhedrins and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the pagans. But when they hand you over, do not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to you when the time comes; because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.
‘Brother will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all men on account of my name; but the man who stands firm to the end will be saved.’
The man who stands firm to the end will be saved
Today’s first reading reminds me of a soon-to-be-released film by Martin Scorsese, entitled ‘Silence’. It is a movie that is supposedly 28 years in the making, about two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to meet their mentor whom they heard had committed apostasy. The film is based on a novel written by Japanese author Sh?saku End?. During the climax of the story, the lead character Sebastião Rodrigues, one of the Jesuits, decides to renounce his faith by stepping on a fumie (a carved image of Christ) in order to free local Christians from further torture.
Although the story is a work of fiction, it seems plausible that such methods were indeed used to threaten and torture priests during the persecution of Japanese Catholics. I have tried, but failed to imagine myself in the shoes of the priest made to renounce his faith in order to save his fellow Christians from torment. What is the right thing to do? To step on the fumie, or not renounce the faith but let the torment of others continue?
Something that I am sort of figuring out, and which is perhaps more related to the circumstances of my life, is the dying to self for the purpose of honouring God. There are certain actions that I like to do without feeling much guilt, although I know that they are technically contrary to the teachings of the church and of the Bible. At some point recently, I realised that I need to make a conscious decision to constantly die to myself and reject those sinful actions, so that I can truly stand and say that I am a follower of Christ. During the Advent Penitential Service this year, I confessed sins that had long been buried in my heart and which I had not even realised were there. I just somehow decided that there was no need to be a slave to fear or shame, and to make a decisive move to love Christ rather than waver and fret and make half-hearted attempts.
In this Christmas season, let us be open to renewing our hearts for Christ.
(Today’s OXYGEN by Edith Koh)
Prayer: We pray for the courage to die to ourselves constantly so as to give glory to our God.
Thanksgiving: We give thanks for the martyrs of the faith whom we know are praying for us and our salvation.