Saint Stephen the Protomartyr
The painting is by Blessed Fra Angelico (1400-1455). Blessed Fra Angelico’s paintings are theological; they are a holy preaching and a revelation of the mysteries of the faith. Here, Saint Peter is ordaining Stephen to the diaconate while Saint John the Beloved (whose feast we will keep tomorrow), holding his Gospel, looks on. The composition is remarkable: the three heads of Peter, John and Stephen form a triangle, a symbol of communion in the Three Divine Persons. Peter is handing over the chalice and paten; they are very large. Fra Angelico makes the Most Holy Eucharist central; he paints what Saint Thomas Aquinas taught, i.e. that the unity of the Church is constituted and held together by participation in the adorable Body and Blood of Christ.
The Holy Ghost at Christmas
The liturgy of Christmas, while drawing our gaze to the Son, the Word made flesh, in no way obscures or minimizes the presence and the work of the Holy Ghost. Quite by chance, I came upon this astonishing text of Saint Ephrem the Syrian: “At this feast of the Nativity let each person wreathe the door of his heart so that the Holy Ghost may delight in that door, enter in and make there his dwelling; then by the Spirit we will be made holy”.
Fear Not, For Thou Hast Found Grace With God
Already on the First Sunday of Advent, we sang in the Benedictus Antiphon, “The Holy Ghost will come upon thee, O Mary. Do not be afraid”. And on the Second Saturday of Advent, Blessed Isaac of Stella explained that “what is said in the particular case of the Virgin Mother Mary, is rightly understood of the Virgin Mother Church universally (Sermon 51). Today’s feast of Saint Stephen is the liturgy’s way of repeating now to the Virgin Mother Church the mysterious words of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mother Mary: “Fear not, for thou hast found grace with God’ (Luke 1:30).
Grace and Power
It is remarkable that Saint Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, describes Saint Stephen as “full of grace and power” (Acts 6:8). The phrase refers back to Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation. To Mary, “full of grace” (Luke 1:28), the angel Gabriel says: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee” (Luke 1:35). The words addressed to the Virgin Mary in a particular way hold universal import for the Church. On this second day of Christmas, Stephen, “full of grace and power”(Acts 6:8) is the radiant icon of the Church indwelt and overshadowed by the Holy Ghost. Without leaving Mary and the Infant Christ, we pass to Stephen and the Infant Christ, to Stephen and the Infant Church.
The Spirit of Truth
Saint Luke tells us that those who disputed Stephen “could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke” (Acts 6:10). Stephen of the growing Church, like Jesus at the age of twelve (Luke 2:42) opens his mouth in the midst of the people, the elders, and the scribes, and his utterance is evidence of the Holy Ghost sent to the Church in fulfillment of Jesus’ promises. “But when the Paraclete cometh, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceedeth from the Father, he shall give testimony of me” (John 15:26). Saint Matthew, in today’s Gospel expresses the same reality: “But when they shall deliver you up, take no thought how or what to speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what to speak. For it is not you that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you” (Matthew 10:19-20).
Full of the Spirit, Stephen Gazed into Heaven
We generally interpret this promise of Our Lord as having to do with the witness given by those who are delivered up to the enemies of His name and persecuted for the sake of the Gospel, and this is indeed the first meaning of the text, but the use of the text in this liturgy of Saint Stephen suggests yet another meaning to us, one that is, at a first glance, perhaps less apparent. Saint Luke clarifies his initial description of Stephen as “full of grace and power” (Acts 6:8) by making it explicit in his description of Stephen’s martyrdom: “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:54).
“Full of grace and power” is synonymous with “full of the Holy Ghost”. The indwelling and overshadowing of the Holy Ghost enables us to speak rightly and boldly in the hour of our need (Matthew 10:19-20). Those who are “full of the Holy Ghost” are also those who gaze into heaven, and see the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:54).
The Boldness That Comes from the Holy Ghost
The first effect corresponds to Saint Paul’s experience of the indwelling Holy Ghost. “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings” (Romans 8:26). How we are to speak and what we are to say come from the Holy Ghost not only when we are facing persecutors but also when, gathered in Christ, we turn to face the Father in prayer. In both instances the Church is in need of the παρρησία — the boldness — that comes from the Holy Ghost.
Tu Solus Sanctus
The Church, indwelt and overshadowed by the Holy Ghost, the Church “full of grace and power” (Acts 6:8), knows how to speak and what to say, for the Spirit helps her in her weakness, giving her to pray as she ought. This is why in the Gloria of the Mass the Church gazes into the heavens and seeing Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father, sings “Thou alone art the Holy One, thou alone art Lord, thou alone art the Most High: Jesus Christ, with the Holy Ghost: in the glory of God the Father” (Gloria). The Church-at-prayer sings of that which she beholds, with the eyes of faith.
The Prayer of Christ
The work of the Holy Ghost, first of all through the sacred liturgy, is to align us with the prayer of Christ to the Father, to empty us of all that is our own prayer — narrow, subjective, constrained — and to fill us with the utter fullness of the prayer of Christ, a prayer that is immense, universal, all-encompassing, all-powerful and always and everywhere pleasing to the Father. In his martyrdom, Saint Stephen reveals this. “Thus they stoned Stephen; he, meanwhile, was praying; Lord Jesus, he said, receive my spirit; and then, kneeling down, he cried aloud, Lord, do not count this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60).
Designedly, Saint Luke, in his account of the death of Stephen, reproduces his own account of the prayer of the dying Jesus from the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, and “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:34 and 46). There is, however, a subtle theological difference. Whereas the dying Jesus addresses the Father, the dying Stephen addresses the living Christ, the risen and ascended Jesus whom he beholds “standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). Stephen’s prayer at the hour of death is a confession of the resurrection and lordship of Christ. The Communion Antiphon of today’s Mass expresses this: the prayer of Christ in Stephen becomes the prayer of Christ in the Church:
I see the heavens opened, and Jesus standing on the right hand of the power of God: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit, and lay not this sin to their charge. (Acts 7:55, 58, 60).
Under the Overshadowing of the Holy Spirit
The Virgin Mother Mary and the protomartyr Saint Stephen are given us as living signs of the indwelling and overshadowing of the Holy Ghost. Now to the Church, as once to the Virgin Mary, is said, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee” (Luke 1:35). To us is given, “wisdom and the Spirit” (Acts 6:10), which no earthly power or wisdom can withstand.
Body of Christ, Voice of Christ, Prayer of Christ
By our communion in the Holy Sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood, we, like Saint Stephen, are filled with the Holy Ghost. Herein is the transforming effect of Holy Mass: we are no longer many individuals speaking many words and praying many prayers. We are, by the action of the Holy Ghost, a single Body with a single voice and single prayer: the Body of Christ, the voice of Christ, the prayer of Christ. Amen.