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Thursday, December 26, 2013

0319: Reflections on the feast of Saint Stephen by Pope Benedict XVI



Entry 0319: Reflections on the feast of Saint Stephen by Pope Benedict XVI during His Pontificate 





On seven occasions during his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI delivered reflections on the feast of Saint Stephen, on 26 December 2005, 26 December 2006, 26 December 2007, 26 December 2008, 26 December 2009, 26 December 2011, and 26 December 2012. Here are the texts of seven reflections that the Pope delivered before the recitation of the Angelus on these occasions.


BENEDICT XVI

ANGELUS

Feast of St Stephen, Monday, 26 December 2005

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Yesterday, after solemnly celebrating Christ’s Birth, today we are commemorating the birth in Heaven of St Stephen, the first martyr. A special bond links these two feasts and it is summed up well in the Ambrosian liturgy by this affirmation: “Yesterday, the Lord was born on earth, that Stephen might be born in Heaven” (At the breaking of the bread).

Just as Jesus on the Cross entrusted himself to the Father without reserve and pardoned those who killed him, at the moment of his death St Stephen prayed: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”; and further: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (see Acts 7: 59-60). Stephen was a genuine disciple of Jesus and imitated him perfectly. With Stephen began that long series of martyrs who sealed their faith by offering their lives, proclaiming with their heroic witness that God became man to open the Kingdom of Heaven to humankind.

In the atmosphere of Christmas joy, the reference to the Martyr St Stephen does not seem out of place. Indeed, the shadow of the Cross was already extending over the manger in Bethlehem.

It was foretold by the poverty of the stable in which the infant wailed, the prophecy of Simeon concerning the sign that would be opposed and the sword destined to pierce the heart of the Virgin, and Herod’s persecution that would make necessary the flight to Egypt.

It should not come as a surprise that this Child, having grown to adulthood, would one day ask his disciples to follow him with total trust and faithfulness on the Way of the Cross.

Already at the dawn of the Church, many Christians, attracted by his example and sustained by his love, were to witness to their faith by pouring out their blood. The first martyrs would be followed by others down the centuries to our day.

How can we not recognize that professing the Christian faith demands the heroism of the Martyrs in our time too, in various parts of the world? Moreover, how can we not say that everywhere, even where there is no persecution, there is a high price to pay for consistently living the Gospel?

Contemplating the divine Child in Mary’s arms and looking to the example of St Stephen, let us ask God for the grace to live our faith consistently, ever ready to answer those who ask us to account for the hope that is in us (see I Pt 3: 15).


BENEDICT XVI

ANGELUS

St Peter’s Square, Feast of St Stephen, Protomartyr

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The day after the Solemnity of Christmas, we are celebrating today the Feast of St Stephen, deacon and the first martyr.

At first glance, the memory of the “Protomartyr” alongside the birth of the Redeemer can leave us perplexed due to the striking contrast between the peace and joy of Bethlehem and the drama of Stephen, stoned in Jerusalem in the first persecutions against the newborn Church.

In reality, the apparent contradiction is overcome if we consider more in depth the mystery of Christmas.

The Child Jesus who lays in the grotto is the only-begotten Son of God who became man. He will save humanity by dying on the Cross. Now we see him in swaddling clothes in the manger; after his crucifixion he will be clad anew in bandages and laid in a sepulcher.

It is not by chance that Christmas iconography sometimes depicts the Divine Newborn carefully lain in a little sarcophagus in order to indicate that the Redeemer is born to die, is born to give his life in ransom for all.

St Stephen was the first to follow in the footsteps of Christ with his martyrdom. He died, like the divine Master, pardoning and praying for his killers (see Acts 7: 60).

In the first four centuries of Christianity, all the saints venerated by the Church were martyrs. They were a countless body that the liturgy calls “the white-robed army of martyrs”, martyrum candidatus exercitus. Their death did not rouse fear and sadness, but spiritual enthusiasm that gave rise to ever new Christians.

For believers the day of death, and even more the day of martyrdom, is not the end of all; rather, it is the “transit” towards immortal life. It is the day of definitive birth, in Latin, dies natalis. The link that exists then between the “dies natalis” of Christ and the dies natalis of St Stephen is understood.

If Jesus was not born on earth, humankind could not be born unto Heaven. Specifically, because Christ is born, we can be “reborn”!

Mary, who held the Redeemer in her arms at Bethlehem, also suffers an interior martyrdom herself. She shared his passion and had to take him yet again in her arms when he was taken down from the Cross. To this Mother, who knew the joy of his birth and the torment of the death of her divine Son, we entrust all those who are persecuted and suffering in various ways for their witness and service to the Gospel.

With special spiritual closeness, I also think of those Catholics who maintain their fidelity to the See of Peter without ceding to compromises, sometimes at the price of grave sufferings. The whole Church admires their example and prays that they have the strength to persevere, knowing that their tribulations are the font of victory, even if at that moment they can seem a failure. To everyone, once again, Merry Christmas!


FEAST OF ST STEPHEN, PROTOMARTYR

BENEDICT XVI

ANGELUS

St Peter’s Square, Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

On the day after Christmas the liturgy has us celebrate the “birth into Heaven” of the first martyr, St Stephen. “Full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6: 5), he was chosen as deacon in the Community of Jerusalem, together with another six disciples of Greek origin. Stephen worked numerous miracles with the power that came to him from God and proclaimed the Gospel in the synagogues with “inspired wisdom”. He was stoned to death outside the city gates and died like Jesus, praying for forgiveness for those who killed him (see Acts 7: 59-60). The deep bond which links Christ to his first martyr Stephen is divine Charity:  the very Love which impelled the Son of God to empty himself and make himself obedient unto death on a Cross (see Phil 2: 6-8) later spurred the Apostles and martyrs to give their lives for the Gospel.

It is always necessary to notice this distinctive feature of Christian martyrdom:  it is exclusively an act of love for God and for man, including persecutors. At holy Mass today, we therefore pray to the Lord that he who “died praying for those who killed him, [may] help us to imitate his goodness and to love our enemies” (see Opening Prayer). How many sons and daughters of the Church down the centuries have followed his example, from the first persecution in Jerusalem to the persecutions of the Roman emperors, to the multitudes of martyrs in our day! Indeed, even today we receive news from various parts of the world of missionaries, priests, Bishops, men and women religious and lay faithful who are persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, deprived of freedom or prevented from exercising it because they are disciples of Christ and apostles of the Gospel; at times, they even suffer and die for being in communion with the universal Church or for their fidelity to the Pope. Recalling the experience of the Vietnamese Martyr, Paul Le-Bao-Tinh (d. 1857) in my Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi (see no. 37), I noted that suffering is transformed into joy through the power of hope that comes from faith. The Christian martyr, like Christ and through union with him, “accepts it in his heart, and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence - the Crucifixion - from within becomes an act of total self-giving love.... Violence is transformed into love, and death into life” (World Youth Day 2005, Homily, Mass on Marienfeld Esplanade, Cologne, 21 August 2005; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 24 August, p. 11). The Christian martyr brings about the victory of love over hatred and death.

Let us pray for those who suffer for being faithful to Christ and to his Church. May Mary Most Holy, Queen of Martyrs, help us to be credible Gospel witnesses, responding to our enemies with the disarming power of truth and charity.


FEAST OF ST STEPHEN, PROTOMARTYR

BENEDICT XVI

ANGELUS

St Peter’s Square, Friday, 26 December 2008

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s Feast of St Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, is set in the spiritual light of the Nativity of Christ. Stephen, a young man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”, as he is described in the Acts of the Apostles (6: 5), together with another six men, was ordained a deacon in the first community of Jerusalem and, because of his passionate and courageous preaching, was arrested and stoned. There is one detail in the account of his martyrdom that should be emphasized during this Pauline Year and it is the remark: “the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7: 58). Here, with his Hebrew name of Saul, St Paul appears for the first time in the guise of a zealous persecutor of the Church (see Phil 3: 6), which he then perceived as a duty and as something to boast. It could be said a posteriori that precisely Stephen’s witness was decisive for his conversion. Let us see how.

Shortly after Stephen’s martyrdom, Saul, still driven by zeal against the Christians, went to Damascus to arrest those he would find there. And while he was approaching the city the blinding flash occurred, that unique experience in which the Risen Jesus appeared to him, spoke to him and changed his life (see Acts 9: 1-9). When Saul, having fallen to the ground, heard himself called by name by a mysterious voice and asked: “Who are you, O Lord?”, he heard the answer: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9: 5). Saul had been persecuting the Church and had also taken part in the stoning of Stephen; he had seen Stephen die, pelted by stones, and above all he had seen the way in which Stephen died: in all things like Christ, that is, praying and forgiving those who killed him (see Acts 7: 59-60). On the road to Damascus Saul realized that in persecuting the Church he was persecuting Jesus who had died and was truly risen; Jesus, alive in his Church and alive in Stephen who he had indeed seen dying but who now certainly lived together with his Risen Lord. We could almost say that in Christ’s voice he recognized Stephen’s, and also that through Stephen’s intercession divine grace touched his heart. This is how Paul’s life changed radically. From that moment, Jesus became his righteousness, his sanctification, his redemption (see 1 Cor 1: 30), his all. And one day he too was to follow Jesus in Stephen’s very footsteps, shedding his own blood in witness to the Gospel, here, in Rome.

Dear brothers and sisters, in St Stephen we see materializing the first fruits of salvation that the Nativity of Christ brought to humanity: the victory of life over death, of love over hate, of the light of truth over the darkness of falsehood. Let us praise God, for this victory still enables many Christians today to respond to evil not with evil but with the power of truth and love. May the Virgin Mary, Queen of Martyrs, obtain for all believers that they may follow courageously this same path.


FEAST OF ST STEPHEN, PROTOMARTYR

BENEDICT XVI

ANGELUS

St Peter’s Square, Saturday, 26 December 2009

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today, our minds still filled with wonder and bathed in the light that shines from the Grotto of Bethlehem where with Mary, Joseph and the shepherds we adored our Savior, we are commemorating the Deacon St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. His example helps us to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of Christmas and testifies to the great marvel of the Birth of that Child in whom is expressed the grace of God which brought salvation to all mankind (see Tit 2: 11). The One stirring in the manger is in fact the Son of God made man who asks us to witness courageously to his Gospel as did St Stephen, who, full of the Holy Spirit, did not hesitate to lay down his life for love of his Lord. He, like his Master, died forgiving his persecutors and thus makes us realize that the entry into the world of the Son of God gives rise to a new civilization, the civilization of love that does not yield to evil and violence and pulls down the barriers between men and women, making them brothers and sisters in the great family of God’s children.

Stephen is also the Church’s first deacon. In becoming a servant of the poor for love of Christ, he gradually enters into full harmony with him and follows Christ to the point of making the supreme gift of himself. The witness borne by Stephen, like that of the Christian martyrs, shows our contemporaries, who are often distracted and uncertain, in whom they should place their trust in order to give meaning to their lives. The martyr, in fact, is one who dies knowing with certainty that he is loved by God, who puts nothing before love of Christ, knowing that he has chosen the better part. The martyr is configured fully to the death of Christ, aware of being a fertile seed of life and of opening up paths of peace and hope in the world. Today, in presenting the Deacon St Stephen to us as our model the Church likewise points out to us that welcoming and loving the poor is one of the privileged ways to live the Gospel and to witness credibly to human beings to the Kingdom of God that comes.

The Feast of St Stephen reminds us also of the many believers in various parts of the world who, because of their faith, are subjected to trials and suffering. While we entrust them to his heavenly protection, let us strive to sustain them with prayer and never to fall short of our Christian vocation, always placing at the centre of our life Jesus Christ, whom in these days we contemplate in the simplicity and humility of the manger. Let us invoke for this the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Redeemer and Queen of Martyrs, with the prayer of the Angelus.


FEAST OF ST STEPHEN, PROTOMARTYR

BENEDICT XVI

ANGELUS

Saint Peter’s Square, Monday, 26 December 2011

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today, the day after the solemn liturgy of the Lord’s Birth, we are celebrating the Feast of St Stephen, a deacon and the Church’s first martyr. The historian Eusebius of Caesarea describes him as the “perfect martyr” (Die Kirchengeschichte v. 2, 5: GCS II, I, Lipsia 1903, 430), because in the Acts of the Apostles it is written that “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). St Gregory of Nyssa commented: “he was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit. He was sustained by the goodness of his will to serve the poor and curbed enemies by the Spirit’s power of the truth” (Sermo in Sanctum Stephanum II: GNO X, 1, Leiden 1990, 98). A man of prayer and of evangelization, Stephen, whose name means “crown”, received from God the gift of martyrdom. Indeed, “full of the Holy Spirit ... he saw the glory of God” (Acts 7:55) and while he was being stoned he prayed: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Then, he fell to his knees and prayed for forgiveness for those who accused him: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

This is why the Eastern Church sings in her hymns: “The stones became steps for you and ladders for the ascent to heaven... and you joyfully drew close to the festive gathering of the angels” (MHNAIA t. II, Rome 1889, 694, 695).

After the generation of the Apostles, martyrs acquired an important place in the esteem of the Christian community. At the height of their persecution, their hymns of praise fortified the faithful on their difficult journey and encouraged those in search of the truth to convert to the Lord. Therefore, by divine disposition, the Church venerates the relics of martyrs and honors them with epithets such as: “teachers of life”, “living witnesses”, “breathing trophies” and “silent exhortations” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 5: PG 36, 500 C).

Dear friends, the true imitation of Christ is love, which some Christian writers have called the “secret martyrdom”. Concerning this St Clement of Alexandria wrote: “those who perform the commandments of the Lord, in every action ‘testify’, by doing what he wishes, and consistently naming the Lord’s name; (Stromatum IV, 7,43,4: SC 463, Paris 2001, 130). Today too, as in antiquity, sincere adherence to the Gospel can require the sacrifice of life and many Christians in various parts of the world are exposed to persecution and sometimes martyrdom. However, the Lord reminds us: “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22).

To Mary Most Holy, Queen of Martyrs, let us address our supplication to preserve the desire for good in its wholeness, especially the good of those who oppose us. Today let us entrust the Church’s deacons in particular to divine mercy so that, illuminated by St Stephen’s example, they may collaborate, in accordance with their mission, in the task of evangelization (see Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, no. 94).


FEAST OF ST STEPHEN, PROTOMARTYR

BENEDICT XVI

ANGELUS

Saint Peter’s Square, Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Every year on the day after the Birth of the Lord the liturgy has us celebrate the Feast of St Stephen, a deacon and the first martyr. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles presents him to us as a man full of grace and of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 6:8-10; 7:55). Jesus’ promise, recorded in today’s Gospel text, was fulfilled in him: believers called to bear witness in difficult and dangerous circumstances will not be abandoned or defenseless; the Spirit of God will speak through them (see Mt 10:20).

Stephen the Deacon, in fact, worked, spoke and died motivated by the Holy Spirit, witnessing to the love of Christ even to the supreme sacrifice. The Protomartyr is described in his suffering as a perfect imitation of Christ, whose Passion is repeated even in the details. The whole of St Stephen’s life is shaped by God, conformed to Christ, whose Passion is replicated in him; in the final moment of death, on his knees he takes up the prayer of Jesus on the Cross, commending himself to the Lord (see Acts 7:59) and forgiving his enemies; “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (v. 60). Filled with the Holy Spirit, when his eyes were about to be dimmed for ever, he fixed his gaze on “Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (v. 55), the Lord of all and who draws all beings to himself.

On St Stephen’s Day we too are called to fix our eyes on the Son of God whom in the joyful atmosphere of Christmas we contemplate in the mystery of his Incarnation. Through Baptism and Confirmation, through the precious gift of faith nourished by the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, Jesus Christ has bound us to him and with the action of the Holy Spirit, wants to continue in us his work of salvation by which all things are redeemed, given value, uplifted and brought to completion. Letting ourselves be drawn by Christ, as St Stephen did, means opening our own life to the light that calls it, guides it and enables it to take the path of goodness, the path of a humanity according to God’s plan of love. Lastly, St Stephen is a model for all who wish to put themselves at the service of the new evangelization. He shows that the newness of the proclamation does not consist primarily in the use of original methods or techniques — which of course, have their usefulness — but rather in being filled with the Holy Spirit and letting ourselves be guided by him.

The newness of the proclamation lies in the depth of the believer’s immersion in the mystery of Christ and in assimilation of his word and of his presence in the Eucharist so that he himself, the living Jesus, may speak and act in his messengers. Essentially, evangelizers can bring Christ to others effectively when they themselves live in Christ, when the newness of the Gospel is reflected in their own life. Let us pray the Virgin Mary that in this Year of Faith the Church may see an increasing number of men and women who, like St Stephen, can bear a convincing and courageous witness to the Lord Jesus. 



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