The story of our Church is no different. It strikes me that during our Lenten journey we focused on the suffering and death of Jesus, followed by His glorious resurrection at Easter. The readings at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles during this Easter season (since we celebrated the resurrection) have focused on the establishment of the early church. Two weeks into all the joy we come face to face with the first martyr, St. Stephen. Are we to halt the celebration as we are faced with the story of the death of a prominent and holy Christian and the persecutions that followed? The Easter season lasts for five more weeks before we come to Pentecost, the feast of the birth of the Church. In the midst of all this celebrating, we are faced with the evil perpetrated on the innocent men and women who were trying to worship their Lord and lead lives in imitation of Him. Little did they realize at first that many of them would be called to imitate Him to the full.
The early martyrs knew that Jesus did indeed save them. They also knew our faith in Him would continue to save those who came later. They knew that this faith was not cheap grace and that it would come at a price. To be truly faithful meant that they needed to hold fast to what they knew to be true and real, because they were witnesses to the death and resurrection. They heard what Jesus said when He indicated that the world would hate His disciples just as they hated Him. In other words, to follow Jesus could be dangerous in a world filled with greed, selfishness and hate. Not only did His followers believe, but they witnessed to that belief publicly. They stood up for their faith, in the face of detractors. Peter and John were arrested and beaten soon after Pentecost. And then there was St. Stephen who never made it a secret how he felt about Jesus.
It seems that not only did Stephen's death cause Christianity to spread as the fleeing believers took their faith with them, but it caused the community to become stronger. You see, the one thing they possessed that no one really anticipated was that they had hope in the Good News. Jesus had taught them to trust in, and essentially to hope, in His power. They knew that death was overcome by resurrection. They had the gift of hope that no matter how bad things became, they would attain the promised salvation. This is why so many were able to become brave enough to face the world they lived in, even if their faith should cause them to die. They knew they would die to this life and rise to the next. But they also knew that their deaths would serve as witnesses as to the power of their hope. And they did. The more their enemies put believers to death, the more the Christian community grew. Many believed on the power of the martyrs’ witness alone. (The word “martyr” means “witness” in Greek!) And others began to truly take to heart what Jesus said to Thomas in one of his resurrection appearances: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." (John 20:29)
During this most recent act of darkness let us refuse to give up on the great gifts of faith, hope, and love which our Lord won for us. We never stop being an Easter people, no matter what. This is what the martyrs such as St. Stephen taught us. The battle is not fully over until the Kingdom is complete. If we persevere even through the darkest of trials, the Kingdom will be complete and the final victory will be ours in Jesus Christ. Until then we must keep comforting the wounded, supporting each other, and loving, loving, loving. This week the pope said, "Pray for docility to the Holy Spirit - to that Spirit who comes to us and urges us forward on the path of holiness." Though his statement was in another context, it fits here. We need to rely on the Holy Spirit to get us through all of the trials before us; as we grow in holiness, so grows the Church and those around us who we will affect by our witness. Let us claim and then share our gift of hope with the world!
All icons are the work of Rev. William Hart McNichols. If you are interested in copies of these you can find them on his website. Links are below.
The first icon is La Sangre de Cristo
The second icon is Holy Protomartyr Deacon St Stephen
It is not yet on Fr. Bill's website.
The third icon is Holy Martyr St. Agnes Lamb of God
The fourth icon is Holy New Martyr Sister Dorothy Stang
The last icon is Holy New Martyr John Karastamatis of Santa Cruz http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=376