Today, in the Roman Catholic Church, is the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr. In the Acts of the Apostles chapters 6 and 7, we are told that St. Stephen is one of the seven men selected by the apostles to be the first deacons. They did this through discernment and prayer. These seven men were to be servants who tended to the tasks of waiting on the members of the new fledgling Church as the apostles tended to the teaching and preaching ministries. This did not exempt Stephen from proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. It was his steadfast preaching of the Gospel and a willingness to suffer for it that gets him killed. As he is being stoned to death for blasphemy (telling the painful truth to the Sanhedrin and those who brought Stephen up on trumped up charges) he prays that God not hold this death against those killing him. We know one of those who concurs in the act of Stephen's death is a rather zealous Pharisee from Tarsus named Saul. This Saul would very quickly become the persecutor of the early church, only stopped on the road to Damascus by Jesus Himself. There he is called to go from persecutor to apostle. One can imagine the daily image in St Paul's head of St Stephen's martyrdom as he went through the Mediterranean basin spreading the Gospel.
In the Gospel for today, Matthew 10:17-22, Jesus warns His disciples that following Him might well engender persecution and even betrayal from the the closest of family. He knew that what awaited Him was the cruelty of the Passion. He knew the world would resent His message of mercy, forgiveness, and love. He knew his followers would be persecuted, harassed, and some martyred. While He warns us of this, He still expects us to live in faith and hope, unperturbed and joyful, despite whatever persecution the world could concoct.
Starting with St. Stephen, we see the followers of Christ got it. They found something so joy filled that there were no threats that could deter them from the faith, not even the threat of death. In the early days of the Church, many throughout the lands where Christianity spread were persecuted and martyred. All of the apostles but St John (not through lack of attempts) would die martyrs. It was that strength and resolve that drew the attention of their persecutors.
Christians were seen as enemies of the state by the Roman Empire. Because they did not worship the Roman gods, they were seen as dangers. For the Romans, the the gods were not loving gods disposed to the good of humanity; rather they were more demonic entities to be appeased; lack of being appeased led to great disaster. When persecutions would break out and arrests were made, these Christians would be rounded up, given a chance to recant or be thrown to the lions, among other totrures. In the Roman world, in their amphitheaters, you had spectacles of blood. The first round were criminals who died cowardly deaths, fleeing and crying from whatever was coming at them. Those who were to die well came later with the gladiatorial fights. But the Christians disrupted this. They died well. Instead of fear and screaming, these Christians would enter singing psalms of praise and praying for those who would witness their death. They continued the activity of St. Stephen.
As time marched on, widespread persecutions continued. Each persecutor would end up losing. Christianity would survive and even thrive. Even to our own day it is estimated that a Christian dies every 5 minutes for the faith. We hear stories of how even children are being put to death by radical jihadists, refusing to deny Christ. That all of us has such courage!
This leads to two final thoughts. Pope Francis, in his Christmas homily and Urbi et Orbi blessing, urged us to not longer turn a blind eye to our Christian brothers ans sisters being annihilated in the Middle East. The world has been deafeningly silent to their cause. Very few are trying to help, in fact, there are many entities including our own government who are actively blocking aid and escape. Say what you will about Glenn Beck, at least through his Nazarene Fund, he is raising monies and even personally going to these dangerous areas of the world to personally oversee the saving of Christians. Raising money has been the easy part, finding any nation to take them has been hard. Slovakia took 150 of them and they told of pressure they were getting from the UN, the EU, and our own country not to take any. While we belong to a church does calls for courage and strength in the face of persecution, that does not mean we refuse to help when we can. As Pope Francis said, this silence must come to an end.
My final thought is this: How do we respond to the attacks leveled against us. A slight understanding of US History shows that the Catholic Church has always been hated in this country. Do we shrink away in witness in the hopes of not being noticed and ridiculed? The secular society is ready every second to mock us, to strip away our abilities to allow faith to be the foundation of our lives. They have successfully driven faith out of the halls of business, education, and governance. Freedom of Religion is quickly being reduced to freedom of worship, which can be quickly eradicated as well. Our weakness and timidity in standing tall only emboldens their next step. We are not jihadists, though, we do not accomplish martyrdom by killing others. Our witness comes not in suicidal frenzies, but in shows of courage and strength. It was that witness to the Gospel that spread the Church throughout the world. Truth by told, it is only that holy boldness that has ever been successful at spreading the faith even in the worst of persecutions.
Now is a needed time of heroes! We need the St Stephens of this world who will lovingly proclaim the Gospel in the hopes of converting souls. For our beliefs are never spread at the tip of a sword, but by mimicking the love of Christ in all things to all people. We have those St Stephens in the Middle East and Africa. We need them here in the USA as well!