It's a bit sobering to share a birthday with a martyr's feast day -- not only a martyr, but the first recorded martyr for the Christian faith. (It's a little like sharing one's birthday with the anniversary of the south Asian tsunami. Maybe I'll celebrate my birthday in June from now on.)
On the other hand, as I was thinking about St. Stephen yesterday, one of the first, admittedly flippant things that came to mind was, "He should be the patron saint of anyone who's ever been tapped for a church committee."
We usually think of the end of Stephen's life -- his courageous defense of the faith, his refusal to fight back, his forgiving his attackers even as they hurled rocks at him. But I keep finding myself thinking about the beginning of his diaconal ministry. Imagine being called to administer, and perhaps more accurately referee, an aid program in the context of a Balkanized community with one side accusing the other of unfairness in the distribution of assistance. Do you think that, when word reached Stephen that the Church leadership had, after prayerful discernment, picked him as one of the people to undertake this task, he was happy about it? I'm thinking not.
Stephen, from what we can gather, was a member of the church subgroup feeling marginalized -- Hellenized Jews, who were culturally and linguistically Greek, who seem to have been discriminated against in the early Christian community by the Hebrew/Aramaic speaking Jewish converts, probably because, in the eyes of the latter, the former's Jewishness had been compromised by their assimilation into Greek culture. Yet Stephen had been picked, it seems, to be part of the team working for reconciliation and equity between the groups. And evidently he did his job well, and more than that -- exceptionally well, not only in terms of his diaconal job description but in terms of working "signs," and of preaching and debating critics of Christianity. Well enough to find himself in the sights of the religious authorities when they decided to crack down on this increasingly visible and vocal new sect.
I think that's one lesson we can learn from Stephen's story: That in a Church where we're still learning how to do things, still trying to get it right but not always succeeding, some of us may be called to "represent" on behalf of others; and it's going to be a tough, thankless job and one that may cost us more than we might think at first, but that the process may also lead us to our finest hour, to a time and place where we can reflect Christ in a way that we may not have thought possible.
There's another lesson in Stephen's story...at the very end, when Stephen's murderers lay their cloaks at the feet of one Saul of Tarsus -- apparently the instigator of Stephen's stoning. You really have to admire Luke's narrative skill here; doesn't that ominous line make you want to read more, and find out about this villainous character Saul? Oh, we will.
The beauty of Stephen's martyrdom is not only that he dies without hatred or regret, with his eyes fixed on his Lord and Savior, but that his death also plays a role in the redemption of his killer.
I read that Bono recently had lunch with Jesse Helms. They're friends -- not just for photo ops, but for real. Whodathunkit? When Bono was advocating on Capitol Hill for more HIV/AIDS research and support funding, he lobbied Helms hard. Not the sort of fellow you'd think would have a metanoia moment on this particular issue, but he did. I understand that Bono's passionate advocacy, which included "doing theology" Bible in hand with the old senator, moved Helms to tears.
When Christ comes down, things change. People change. Even institutions change. "Even so, come, Lord Jesus."
The stoning of St. Stephen, 13th century, Black Bourton, Oxon