Sunday, May 16, 2010

The 7th Sunday of Easter

It’s no accident that the official book that lists all the saints (on their appropriate days) is called the Martyrology, for the martyrs have always held a place of special honor in the Church’s memory, from the very first century right down to the present. Speaking at the canonization of the 19th-century Ugandan martyrs in 1964, Pope Paul VI, after recalling the famous early Christian martyrs of Africa, said, “Who would have thought that in our days we should have witnessed events as heroic and glorious?” In fact, martyrs have been as central to the experience of the Church in modern times as in ancient times, and the last hundred years have probably produced more martyrs than any previous century in the Church’s history!

But of all the martyrs, the story of Stephen, the first martyr (told in chapters 6-7 of the Acts of the Apostles), has always stood out – largely because he was the first, but also because the story of his martyrdom is so reminiscent of the story of Jesus himself and thus exemplifies so well what every martyr’s death (and every Christian’s life) is supposed to be. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” said Stephen before he died – words addressed to the Risen and Ascended Jesus in obvious imitation of the crucified Jesus’ own prayer to his Father. And an obvious moral to be drawn from the story of Stephen’s martyrdom is that, just as Jesus forgives, so also anyone who identifies with Jesus must forgive!

From the beginning, Christians straightforwardly adopted as part of their own morality the conventional human and social virtues of classical antiquity – justice, prudence, courage, etc. When it came to forgiveness, however, they were guided rather by the example of Jesus himself in practicing and indeed insisting on forgiveness. As St. Francis of Assisi said in his famous Canticle of the Sun, “Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you.”

Of course, when it comes to the actual practice of forgiveness, we seem somewhat ambivalent. Nor should that surprise anyone. Forgiveness is not easy. It does not come automatically or naturally. Anger, resentment, and the desire for revenge all seem so much more natural. Given what we see of Stephen’s character as suggested by his combative evangelizing style, it’s possible that forgiveness may not have come so automatically or naturally to him either.

Yet somehow Stephen was able to get beyond normal natural feelings – precisely because something new had happened to him, because of who he had newly become by having identified himself with Jesus, through whom he had already experienced the freeing forgiveness of God.

The experience of being forgiven, of course, presumes we recognize our own need for forgiveness. Receiving and giving forgiveness is always a challenge. If anything it may be even more so today when accepting responsibility for our own actions has somewhat gone out of style and has given way to a corrosive culture of victimhood, blame, and litigiousness. (We saw some of that on display again this week with the congressional hearings on the oil spill). But really to receive forgiveness and to be really healed by it presumes we can recognize, on the one hand, how we are all in this together and share the universal burden of sin and, on the other hand, our own individual need for forgiveness. That is why we begin our Mass most days with a ritual of repentance. We do not come to Mass to be told that we are sinners. We know that already, and that is precisely why we come to Mass. We come to experience the presence of the Risen Lord and his forgiveness in our lives.

Forgiving others can certainly be usefully presented in secular terms – as some sort of healing process, as a way out of passivity and victimhood, as turning a more hopeful page to enable one to get beyond individual resentments and conflicts and to get on with one’s life. And that’s all fine and good – as far as it goes. But Stephen went further, experiencing a real bond with his persecutors not for his healing but for theirs, thanks to a transformed life lived in union with the Risen Jesus, who heals and empowers his disciples, unburdening them with the freeing forgiveness of God.

Having himself experienced the freeing forgiveness of God given to us through Jesus – the Risen Lord who unites us with himself in his Church (and especially when we assemble as Church on the 1st day of every week) – Stephen’s world turned a totally new page beyond anything anyone would have ever expected, establishing a bond between Stephen and his persecutors, between Stephen and even his persecutor Saul, soon to be transformed into the Apostle Paul. In the words of one 6th-century North African Bishop, St. Fulgentius of Ruspe: “Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen.”
Homily at St. Paul the Apostle Church, May 16, 2010.

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