The Feast of St. Stephen
Acts 6:8-7:59; Matthew 10:17-22
It can be hard for us as believers at Christmas when our children come home or our friends come over and they don’t believe anymore. They don’t “rise up against us” and have us put to death but sometimes they argue or criticize, and their indifference can be hard for us, too, a kind of shadow over our holidays. There’s always some teeth-grinding when families gather, on all sides, and that’s not easy.
And arguing back doesn’t seem to do much good, no matter how eloquent we are. St. Stephen, the first deacon and the first martyr, is full of “wisdom and the spirit” in his debates, but that’s obviously not enough–or he would just be the first deacon, not a martyr at all. His stoning is only a more extreme version of our own failures as apologists.
Although unlike St. Stephen we usually don’t accept our failures. They bother us. They can undermine our faith and our confidence and our good will when really we should expect to fail, we shouldn’t be surprised, we should realize: this is it, this is the way it is. Do not depend on the hope of results, Thomas Merton writes, in “Letter to a Young (or Old) Activist”:
When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself.
This is what St. Stephen does. He doesn’t just concentrate on the truth of the work itself but he sees that truth, in the heavens, the “Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” He is focused on God, not on what the world thinks of him, and so he has the confidence to suffer not just rejection but even death.
You are probably striving to build an identity in your work [Merton continues]. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will not come from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. . . . The real hope is no in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see.
So let’s not be surprised or depressed when our children don’t come to mass with us or our friends make fun of us or we can’t seem to convince the people we love of the great coherence and beauty of our faith. This is par for the course. This is the way it is and always has been and our role is to keep our eyes fixed on God, on the reality of God’s presence all around us, in the sky and on the ground and everywhere, whether or not anyone else can see this and feel this. It’s OK. It’s not up to us. It’s not about us. To be a deacon is to put ourselves second, in relation to something and someone always greater, and our challenge isn’t to convince anyone else of this but to convince ourselves, to battle our own egos and our own pride and our need to look good and be right. And since we can never win this battle on our own, since we can never on our own give up our need to succeed, to win, let us pray again and again to be filled with the Spirit, as St. Stephen is. Let us pray for grace, for ourselves and for our children and for our all our friends and families. For we are only conduits. We are only vessels. The work is not ours, it’s God’s, and He knows what he’s doing.