St. Stephen, the First Martyr
Acts 6:8-10;7:54-59 + Matthew 10:17-22
December 26, 2020
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
The dying words of St. Stephen—“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”—help us understand why the Church celebrates the feast day of the Church’s first martyr on the second day of Christmastide. These first two days of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus and the martyrdom of St. Stephen, seem oddly juxtaposed unless we consider Stephen’s last words as revealing something important not just about him, but also about Our Lord and, indeed, ourselves who are disciples of Jesus.
First, it’s helpful to fix in our minds that, as the old saying goes, “the wood of the crib is the wood of the Cross.” In other words, Jesus was born at Bethlehem so that He could die at Calvary.
Second, we have to consider what, by extension, that first truth reveals. Dying for fallen man’s sins is the earthly vocation of Jesus Christ. Communicating to fallen man the graces that Jesus won at Calvary is the vocation of Jesus’ Church on earth. St. Stephen’s vocation as the Church’s “proto-martyr” makes clear that Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that fallen man wouldn’t have to.
Instead, the victory of Jesus on Calvary, for which purpose He was born at Bethlehem, invests the suffering and deaths of Jesus’ disciples with new meaning. The dying words of St. Stephen, then, are not a mere surrender on the occasion of his murder. They conclude a life of faith, in which each day is lived by the same words. Each day is a surrender to the Lord Jesus. Each day is a dying to self. The day of death, then, is the conclusion of earthly self-giving and the day of new life: entrance into God’s eternal presence and everlasting sharing in the love of His Holy Spirit.