What We Can Learn from St. Stephen’s Imitation of Christ
December 26 finds the Church celebrating the feast day of St. Stephen, the first martyr for the Christian faith. Stephen was one of the seven men chosen by the apostles to be a deacon so that they might be able to carry on with their ministry of prayer. The deacons (the Greek word diakonos meaning ‘servant’) were men “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) chosen to help serve the material needs of the faithful. St. Stephen, in particular, continues to serve the Church as a model of what it means to follow Christ to the end.
It might seem strange to have the joyful, long-anticipated celebration of Christ’s birth immediately followed by the memorial of the death of the first martyr, but the Church, in her wisdom, has something to teach us through this placement of St. Stephen’s feast day. The wisdom is this: Christ came into the world to reunite weary, weak mankind to the Father. This was accomplished by his death on the cross. The infant God-man in the manger came to die for us. St. Stephen, following on the heels of his Master, died for the sake of the Gospel. He died for the sake of being true to Christ. He died in imitation of the Lord. The account of the accusation against St. Stephen, his trial, and his death in Acts of the Apostles closely mirrors the death of Christ from the Gospel of St. Luke. Acts of the Apostles was also penned by Luke and he uses similar language to describe Jesus and Stephen and thus to make the similarities between their lives and their deaths apparent to the faithful. Stephen is held up by Luke as an example of what it means to follow Christ – it is to imitate him and become like him.
First, Luke emphasizes the wisdom of Jesus and Stephen. When describing the child Jesus in the early acts of his life, St. Luke describes Jesus as growing in wisdom. Stephen is also described several times in a short space as full of wisdom, but what is it to be wise? The Psalms, book of Wisdom, book of Sirach, and the book of Ecclesiastes all discuss at length what wisdom is and what the wise do and do not do. Psalm 1 distills all of this teaching into the essential contrast between the good man of wisdom and the wicked fool. The wise man knows law of the Lord in his heart. He knows the ways of the Lord not only in his head, but in his heart, and he lives his life according to that knowledge rather than living contrary to it. Jesus and Stephen had God’s law written on their hearts and conformed themselves completely to the way of the Lord. It is necessary for us likewise to not only read the Word of God, but to allow the Lord to engrave it on our hearts that we might truly abide in his truth. Stephen shows us that the way of wisdom is rooted in head and heart knowledge of the one who came to save us.
Full of the Holy Spirit
Stephen also imitates Christ by being “full of the Holy Spirit.” In fact, Luke explicitly mentions Stephen as full of the Spirit four times in the two chapters in which he appears in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke also describes Jesus as being full of the Holy Spirit after his baptism as he enters the desert where he goes to meet his greatest opponent and the king of the way of the wicked – the devil. The Holy Spirit indicates God’s presence with both men as they engage in what the Lord has called them to do. They are not on their own, but have the strength of the Holy Spirit abiding in them. The Lord abides with those whom he loves, and does not leave them to face things on their own power. The wicked do not have God’s abiding presence among them, and thus are left to their own devices and they ultimately fail.
Stephen is set up in direct opposition to his opponents as one who is full of the Holy Spirit. It is with the power of the Spirit, he accomplishes signs and wonders among the people as Christ did. It is “full of grace and power” that these signs and wonders are done and, like Jesus, this is what initially catches the attention of Stephen’s opponents, the Freedmen. They engage Stephen in a dispute and realize that he follows the one who was crucified. This is what instigates the false accusations and arrest of the good deacon. Stephen is described as having a “face like an angel.” His goodness, his holiness, his intimacy with the Holy Spirit shines forth not only in the acts he performs and the words that he utters, but in his very body as well.
These two holy ones, full of the Holy Spirit, stand in opposition to their accusers, who resist and ultimately reject the works of God. Stephen, loving the living truly according to the law of the Lord in wisdom, is close to the Holy Spirit. One who is full of the Holy Spirit is not filled with fear, and thus he fearlessly engages with his interlocutors. Stephen shows us that those who truly follow Christ will be given, each in their own measure, wisdom and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. These gifts enable us to do as God has called us to do. The rest of Stephen’s story shows what Christians can expect from the world, and even from fellow followers who know the truth only in part, but his story also tells us how we can respond like Stephen, who has ultimately conformed himself to Christ.
Do Not Fear Persecution
Stephen is correctly accused of following the Christ, but he is falsely accused of preaching that Jesus would destroy the Temple and taught against the law of Moses. His accusers twist the teachings of Christ for their own benefit. These men claim to be close followers of the law, are meant to be on the lookout for the Messiah, and yet in their ignorance and stubbornness rejected the Christ and his teaching. Consequently, they also reject Stephen, his works in Christ, and his teaching.
There are those who reject Christ and his teaching. There are those who reject the Catholic Church’s teaching on Christ. There are those who twist what the Catholic Church teaches about Christ and his life. Christ was misunderstood and falsely accused. Stephen was misunderstood and falsely accused. We might also be misunderstood and falsely accused, or we might experience other difficulties and hardships as we strive to follow Christ. Stephen demonstrates how we can continue to imitate Christ even in the midst of strife.
Stephen who has the law of God in his heart and the power of the Holy Spirit with him tells an abbreviated version of the story of salvation history. In so doing, he flips the false accusations on their heads and reveals God’s work particularly in Joseph and Moses. He compares Jesus to both of these patriarchs, who were also rejected by their families, falsely accused, had God’s presence with them, and ultimately led the people of Israel to redemption.
Stephen likens his accusers to those who rejected God’s plan. He calls them “stiff-necked” – an accusation that God also launched against those in Israel who remained stubborn during the Exodus and Exile. Stephen calls out his accusers for resisting the Holy Spirit. He is not afraid to speak boldly about salvation history or the law. He is not shy to accuse his accusers. The truth is bold, and it is on the side of those who follow the way of the Lord.
We may not be called to accuse others as starkly and publicly as Stephen did (and Christ, for that matter!), but we are called to continue proclaiming the truth, to proclaim the Gospel, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. We live in a time when popular culture and politics are often against the Church and Christ’s teachings, but we must be ready and willing to speak and live the truth anyway.
Pray for Those Who Persecute You
The goal of speaking the truth and proclaiming the Gospel is not to be right. The end is to draw all people to Christ. Even if we go about preaching the Gospel in a meek and mild way, there might be resistance and persecution. There are some people who will persist in their ridicule. We must love them anyway. As Christ hung from the cross and as Stephen reeled from blows of rocks to his head, both prayed for those who were responsible for their deaths. We too must pray for those who humiliate us, those who accuse us, those who might attempt to strip us of our livelihood and lives. We must pray that God have mercy on them, and that they might cooperate with his grace.
Surrender to God
In Luke’s Gospel Christ’s last words are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Stephen’s last words are actually to pray for his persecutors, but just before that he says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He recognizes Jesus as Lord and surrenders himself into the merciful hands of God. Stephen was granted a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father, ready to welcome him into the Kingdom, just before his death and Stephen stood ready to meet him as the accusers gathered the stones.
We, too, must be ready and willing to surrender ourselves to the Lord. Not only when trials, difficulties, and death come, but in everyday life. Stephen shows us that the true measure of discipleship comes at the cost of our lives: not in other people taking our lives, but in our own self-entrustment into the hands of the Father. May we strive to become more like St. Stephen, the unabashed imitator of Christ and the first martyr for the faith.