Wednesday December 26, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Feast of Saint Stephen
Reading I (Acts 6:8-10;7:54-59) Gospel (St. Matthew 10:17-22)
One would naturally think that the day after Christmas we would continue to be celebrating the Birth of Our Lord, which indeed we do for the entire Octave of Christmas. But then the natural question is why are we celebrating the death of Saint Stephen, the martyrdom of this first one who died for Christ? The reason is because this is birth. It is exactly, on another level, what Our Lord did. As we celebrate His birth into this world, we celebrate the birth of Saint Stephen into the next life.
Our Lord tells us that anyone who would lose his life will save it, while anyone who saves his life will lose it. We think about what Our Lord Himself did: being willing to take on our human nature. It is not that He left the Trinity - he could not – but, in a sense, if you want to think of it in the idea that He left Heaven to come to earth, that He left the Trinity to become man – which, again, He did not because He can never [cease to be] God; He can never be separated from the Father and the Holy Spirit because they share the same substance, but in the sense of taking on our human nature and becoming one of us, in that sense we can say that He was willing to lose His life. He was willing to lose what He had in order to be born as a little baby. And that is the act which saved all of us: that He is willing to come into this world to be born as a baby and to die for us.
So what we see, then, in Saint Stephen is someone who was willing to do exactly the same: to give up what he had in this life in order to gain eternal life. But the beautiful thing for Saint Stephen is that it was not only for him. Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading today that when the hour comes we will be given the words and the wisdom that we need, and it will be the Holy Spirit speaking in us. There is a long section that was dropped out of the first reading; it is a very eloquent speech that Saint Stephen had given showing completely that he was rooted in Judaism, showing that Christianity was not something that the Jewish people should abhor, but rather, it was the fulfillment of Judaism. But nonetheless, they did not want to listen.
And as eloquent as his speech may have been, it was not nearly as eloquent as his final speech. That is, the witness that he gave to Jesus in being willing to be stoned to death and to pray for those who were killing him and to ask the Father to receive his spirit. That is what was more convincing and has been more convincing to people for 2,000 years than the beautiful speech that Saint Stephen gave laying out the whole history of salvation. Not only did he understand the history, but he entered it. He entered into that salvation so that he could be reborn. Not reborn in Baptism, in this sense, but reborn into eternal life - to leave this world in order to enter into the next, to leave behind all the humanness of this world in order to enter into the Divinity. Again, like Our Lord, it is not that Saint Stephen was not human any longer, that he left his humanity behind - he did not: he will always be human. But he has entered now into the life of the Trinity, into the Divinity of God. That is why we celebrate this.
Yesterday in the homily, we looked at a number of the seeming contradictions. We remember that Simeon said of Jesus that He will be a sign of contradiction. That is what the Christian life is. And that is what we continue to celebrate today: a sign of contradiction - that those who die in Christ will live, that if we hold out until the end we will escape death even by being put to death because it is only in that that we find true and eternal life. The contradictions continue (or what the worldly would see as contradictions). But in God, "the foolishness of God is more powerful than the wisdom of men," Saint Paul says. And so we look at this and it is the foolishness of God; it is what the wise and the clever will not be able to understand. But the simple and the childlike will be able to grasp it not only with their minds but with their hearts and will be able to enter into that mystery: the mystery of God who became a baby, and the mystery of a human man who entered into eternal life by giving up his life. That is the same mystery, just the other side of the coin.
When we see Our Lord’s birth into this world, then we have reason to look forward to our rebirth into the next. That is why it is not a contradiction to celebrate a martyr the day after Christmas. It simply follows logically – not in a worldly sense, but rather, in a sense of God’s Providence, in the sense of Divine Logic because it is not about death; it is all about life. It is about life in God, life in Christ, and eternal life by being willing to give up everything we have in this world to obtain everything in the next.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.