It is difficult to think of anything else this week after the incident that took place at the Boston Marathon. There were so many stories and pictures of the tragedy and there were also many stories and pictures of heroes who risked their own lives to help those who were injured. There will be more and more of these stories. What impresses me the most is that there are more stories of heroic deeds during and after the awful situation then there are of the horrific event. There are only one or two real stories about the tragedy: the event of the bombings and trying to figure out who did it. But of the heroism and goodness of those who have helped the injured and their families, there are multitudes of stories emerging. Goodness always supersedes evil, and in this case, while there is much healing to be done, I believe goodness will continue to supersede the obvious evil of the event.
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.
It is interesting to me that the story of St. Stephen, in some ways, parallels the recent news. There are always those "out there" in the world who seek destruction of that which is good and holy and pure. This has been true since the beginning of creation and it will remain true until Jesus returns. Jesus came to overcome the power of that evil. That is what His death is all about. He did overcome it with His death and resurrection. But that did not take away the power of temptation and evil completely; it did not take away our free will such that people are free to do good or to do evil. It gave the ultimate victory to those of us who do choose good and faithful lives because in the end we will attain heaven. We already are building the Kingdom of God which will prevail no matter what. One thing that can never be taken from us in all of this is the power of hope, the often overlooked grace of the trio, faith, hope, and love which we were given at Baptism.
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.
St. Stephen preached about Jesus in the Temple area, not at all intimidated by the Pharisees and Sadducees who lurked nearby. He lived what he believed. Not long after he began to preach, St. Stephen was arrested on charges of blasphemy. He never backed down or softened his approach. He witnessed to the Sanhedrin who had arrested and charged him, the same body of religious authority that handed over Jesus to the Romans. He not only continued to preach to them, but when they condemned him to death he cried out that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God in Heaven, which incensed them all the more. They stoned him to death on the spot. This created so much fear in the early church that many fled from Jerusalem to Antioch. But what happened next is what is fascinating.
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)
The greatest gifts given to us are the gifts of faith, hope, and love. We receive them at baptism, for many of us at infancy, for a reason. We really will need these gifts during our entire earthly journey. We need them more than anything else if we are going to make it through the temptations and assaults of this life. God wants us to be with Him in Heaven for eternity, so He gave us the most important gifts of all: the power of faith, hope, and love won by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. No one can take these away from us, unless we give them away, refuse to use them, or are in ignorance of their power, and hence do not know to use them.
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!
May we accept the gift of hope that goodness will ultimately overcome evil in the end! May we have faith to trust in the power of death and resurrection of our Lord, finding joy in the midst of darkness! May we have the love to reach out in healing, comfort, support, and solidarity to those around us who may be struggling! May we have the courage to pray for our enemies and those who are lost in darkness! And may we never let go of hope, as we spread it to others! Let us continue to meet in the healing Heart of our triumphant Lord. Peace to you and to all you meet!
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
Heart Speaks to Heart