Stoning of Saint Stephen by Paolo Uccello
‘Tis the day after Christmas
and all through each home,
celebrations continue because
St. Stephen was stoned!
… i.e. martyred, not on drugs.
On December 26th, the day after Christmas, we would almost expect the Church to give us a liturgical day off or an uplifting story like St. Hallmark, Patron of Wrapping Paper Clean Up and Sentimentality. Rather, we honor St. Stephen, the Proto-Martyr, and the bloody tale of his trial, testimony, and execution.
We first meet St. Stephen in Acts 6. The Twelve find themselves so busy sharing the good news that they need assistance serving the poor and the widows. Stephen qualified as one of these “reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3).” He along with six other men were presented to the apostles “who prayed and laid hands on them (Acts 6:6)” marking the first ordination to the diaconate.
Like so many other young men of that generation, when you prove to be good at your job in service to the Church, it proves hazardous to your health. Stephen who was “working great wonders and signs among his people (Acts 6:8)” became the subject of accusations and the favorite debate sparring partner of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and the people from Cilicia and Asia. Luke goes on to tell us in Acts 6, “But they could not withstand the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke (Acts 6:10).”
Stephen is accosted, seized, and brought before the Sanhedrin…sound familiar? False witnesses come forward…see where this is going? Hearing all of this the high priest asks, “Is this so?” and Stephen launches into his evangelization elevator pitch. He begins with “My brothers and fathers, listen…” and continues for most of Acts 7. In the following 50 verses Stephen recounts the story of Salvation History, from Abraham to Zebulun, focusing on the perpetual hard-headed-ness of the Hebrew people over the course of the Old Testament. [Note: Can’t remember the story of the Hebrew people? Don’t have time to reread the entire Old Testament? Acts 7 offers a great refresher!]
As you can imagine, that did not go over well… as the truth often doesn’t. After some grinding of teeth and covering of their ears, they “threw him out of the city, and began to stone him (Acts 7:58).” Apparently it was a little hot for stoning that day, and they all had to throw off their cloaks at the feet of the scene’s most famous witness–Saul (but more on SPaul another time).
The Church in her wisdom offers us an opportunity as we continue through this Christmas season to reflect on what the Incarnation cost the followers of Christ–EVERYTHING. We rejoice that the Savior has come, but now we must also remember that his coming requires us to go therefore… The Christmas season is not simply a time for silent adoration but a life that matches silent adoration with action and words. But where do we get the words?
I jokingly refer to St. Stephen’s final testimony as his “elevator pitch”, but in a way, shouldn’t we be prepared at all times to give a reason for our hope? St. Peter thought so. If you google “elevator pitch” you will find 1000s of business websites offering tips on crafting your perfect elevator pitch–a brief speech you have prepared whenever anyone gives you an opportunity to talk about your company, product, self, etc. Do we have an elevator pitch when it comes to our faith? How prepared are we to evangelize?
Evangelize? Shouldn’t that be left to the professionals with the collars and the blogs? False. It’s the duty of all Christians. And if you’re a recovering perfectionist like me, the idea of explaining our faith to a stranger or even worse a beloved family member can be paralyzing. We have so many fears: What if I say the wrong thing? I don’t want to be an accidental heretic. What if I turn them off to Catholicism forever? What if I’m stoned like St. Stephen? One of the best ways to combat our (often irrational) fears is preparation. So where do we begin? Let’s ask Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for some advice:
Help each other to live and to grow in the Christian faith so as to be valiant witnesses of the Lord. Be united, but not closed. Be humble, but not fearful. Be simple, but not naive. Be thoughtful, but not complicated. Enter into dialogue with others, but be yourselves.
B16 nails it–be yourself! Each of us has a story and that story is important. Maybe it is not “exciting” and doesn’t include the bells and whistles of a miraculous physical healing or a near death experience… but it’s AUTHENTIC, and that is what opens people’s hearts and minds–authenticity. It’s your story. And you know who is part of it? Jesus. And that is why your story is special and good and worth sharing with everyone you meet.
Here are three Ps I would offer to you when preparing your Catholic elevator pitch:
Take some time to be quiet and reflect on your story. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you dig deep. Why do I believe what I believe? How did it start? Who walked with me in my faith journey? Did something happen to make me want to really take this Catholic thing seriously? Who has inspired me along the way? What was life like when I wasn’t faithful? What is it like now? Do I have remaining questions about the faith? How do I handle those questions? How do I handle doubt? What brings me back when I have been away? When and how have I experienced God’s mercy? What can I tell others about God’s mercy?
Call a friend, write it down, talk to yourself in the mirror… Stories, monologues, jokes always get better the more we tell them. In this case practice is not about making perfect, but rather it is about decreasing our fears and insecurities. Sidenote: I used this exercise with some college freshmen this year. The challenge was to get together in small groups and each take a turn telling a simple story about how God had touched their lives. The students were not particularly looking forward to this assignment but were surprised at how easy and generally painless it was to share their story with virtual strangers. This forced “practice” gave them the experience (and therefore courage) to be ready to share with others in the future.
Be present to those around you. Open your ears for opportunities to share. You have no idea how your story of hope could change another person’s life–as the truth often does.
St. Stephen, we pray during this Christmas season and well into Ordinary time that you intercede on our behalf! Holy Spirit, give us the words to share our hope without fear. Give us the words to express how the hopes and fears of all the years were met in that little town of Bethlehem so long ago. Give us the courage to cry out when persecuted as St. Stephen did, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Help us to be simple, thoughtful, and ourselves. Mother Mary, pray for us that we may not only keep all of these things on our heart but to also shout them from the rooftops!
This post originally appeared on TheCatholicOutpost.com on December 26, 2016.