Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity (Proper 28), 2020.
We continue today with our reflection on Saint Stephen the hoy Martyr, looking at how his story in Scripture makes more real for us the profession in the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in the Communion of Saints”—a living relationship with the Saints being fundamental to baptismal living. Saint Stephen is such a poignant example of everything it means to be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world; witness to Christ to others both in word and in deed. Last Sunday I spoke of how his preaching as a Deacon, not so much liturgically as a sermon during Mass but speaking about the power of Christ in the public square, in the streets, in people’s homes as he served the poor, embodied the wise maidens and how they made sure to have enough oil—oil being a composite symbol of Scripture of giving oneself in sacrifice with prayerful compassion according to Scripture (the primary symbolism of oil being seen in the example of Saint Mary Magdalene).
Summing up also is the term taught by Jesus in that parable of the wise and foolish maidens—His teaching to “watch.” For us to watch is to live baptismally: our living sacrifice, suffering with Christ, and finding Him through prayer gloriously revealed in Scripture as our daily Bread. And we can be sure that St Stephen himself took this to heart, and made his own life by God’s grace over into a life of watching—finding Christ through prayer in Scripture and thereby suffering with Christ (what we mean by having compassion) all as a living sacrifice of his life to Christ, offering and presenting his soul and body unto Christ, as we say in the Mass and as Saint Paul says, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice. As we hear the story of Saint Stephen and take his story into our heart, we partake more and more with Him in the Holy Communion of Christ, and share more and more with Stephen the grace and heavenly benediction, or blessing, of Christ—for Christ blesses all who partake of Him.
The most significant signal that Stephen was full of grace and heavenly benediction is the description of him at the end of Acts 6, that all how sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel. It is an arresting image, particularly because it comes from the hand of Saint Luke, the author of the Gospel account attributed to him but also of the Acts of the Apostles. Angels figure prominently for Luke in the proclamation of the Gospel—the archangel Gabriel’s message first to Zachariah and then to Blessed Mary: the angelic light in Luke’s telling always shines with the heavenly light of Christ. To Zachariah the angel proclaimed Zachariah’s son John Baptist would be great in the sight of the Lord, and would turn many of the children of Israel to Jesus. And to Our Lady, the angel proclaimed “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. Mary herself thereby so shone with the angelic light that her mere voice a short while later to her cousin Elizabeth caused the baby John Baptist to leap in her womb, and to fill her with the Holy Spirit herself. And it is the angelic light that proclaims the Resurrection of Christ—as the two men stood with the holy Women at the tomb, and reminded them of Scripture so as to be able to recognize the living among the dead, and to understand that suffering leads to eternal life.
This is what it means for the council of Jews to see Stephen’s face as the face of an angel. The glory of Christ shined through Stephen—through his eyes, through the disposition of his face, through his voice, through his fragrance. The defense he then gave radiated with angelic energy that revealed Christ through the Old Testament. To become one with Christ is to receive the radiance that shown from Stephen’s face—at that moment, on trial for his faith in Christ, Stephen was beholding God’s face, for the face of an angel is the face that see God, the face that sings to God around the heavenly throne, singing unceasingly “Holy, holy, holy.” The holiness of Stephen took everyone’s breath away, the peace of Stephen made their jaw drop, the love of Stephen began to soften their hardened hearts (especially that of Saul who looked on), and the authority of his presence, the authority of his face, the authority then of his words giving testimony to the living Christ, the Lord Christ, Son of the living God, who gives mercy to all who truly turn to Him—this holiness, this angelic presence, this love so convicted them of their sins that all their demons were scared up from their hidden places in the hearts of the council that they acted as demonic animals and stoned Stephen to death. But no before Stephen would drop his last bit of heavenly dew upon them—saying, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin. Do not hold this sin against them”: an echo of Our Lord Jesus Himself on the Cross, again captured by Luke: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Stephen teaches us that the angelic light shines to others in our faces when we ask the Father to forgive our enemies, forgive our persecutors. True forgiveness from the Father is Christ’s light in the world.