St. Stephen and Our Vocation

‘No-one has ever seen God, the only begotten God, the one being in the heart of the Father, he has narrated him’ (John 1.18 own translation)

This verse from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel takes us to the very heart of the Trinitarian mystery and ‘the great and mighty wonder’ of Christmas. The Son, who is born in that stable is no ordinary human being endowed with great power; nor is he a superman – he is the second person of the Trinity incarnate: ‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.’ (Heb. 1.3). When the Son is born in the stable, the limitless creative love and power of God is poured into a human life so that the ineffable beauty of the eternal Source is known for a time in human form. The result of this event is an expansion of human potential beyond all imagining – we are given access to the place where the Son stands, which is nearest to the heart of the Father. We are given a home; a hope; a destiny greater than we could ever imagine – ‘we shall be like him’, says the writer of 1 John (3.2). The incarnation is not a superficial thing: neither is he a human being who taught us about God or God pretending to be a human being: instead, we believe that God, in Christ, entered the totality of human experience – gestation, birth, death and everything in between.

The descent of God the Word into our flesh was total and complete. Our rejoicing this season is in our Saviour’s willingness to become totally human and to suffer and die for those who were far off.  All this must be borne in mind when we recall that the day following the great solemnity of Christ’s nativity is the feast of St. Stephen’s death, the first Christian martyr.

Stephen is a martyr of the earliest Church and, as such is rightly known as one of the great witnesses to what faith in the Word made flesh really entails. Our faith is not in a series of propositions or a particular moral code, but in Jesus Christ himself – our faith, our act of trust in him, is that in him is a power that transcends suffering and is more powerful than death. His death is a testimony to his firm conviction that those ‘in Christ’ – in whom works the same power that raised the Lord from the dead – will experience death not as the end of something but as the route of access into the very life of God himself.

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But the manner of his death has other lessons to teach us because we begin to glimpse the human potential unleashed by the incarnation. Treated unjustly and with abject cruelty, Stephen was willing to forgive those who persecuted him – and it is this other worldly ability to forgive that displays how faith in Christ transforms us and how the disciples of the Infant King live in the world but are not of the world. Those who bear the name of the incarnate Lord are called to resist evil, to bear witness to truth in a post-truth world and to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed – but we do so not with vengeance, rhetoric or retribution – but by choosing the path of forgiveness, humility and love.

In the order of Christian funerals we pray that the Lord Jesus ‘will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body’ – this is the final destiny of the Christian; to be like Christ in the heart of the Father. But our decision to be conformed to him begins today – Stephen’s death mirrored the forgiveness and non-violence of his Master’s death –  may our whole lives be conformed to the image of him who came not to be served but to serve.

Stephen ora pro nobis.

‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’

 

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Being in theological college – especially in a college not affiliated to any particular Anglican tradition – introduces you to a host of debates and tension within the Church; some of which I was never aware of! Do we read the Apocrypha at Evening Prayer or not? Should we wear vestments at the Eucharist? What is a priest for? How do we understand the Bible? One such conversation that I had recently was with someone who suggested that the Catholic tradition in general and me in particular had an unhealthy fascination with the gruesomeness of the crucifixion – a fixation on death, darkness and blood. We were discussing the Eucharist and this candidate argued that her worship was more interested in light, joy and the risen Lord – in their Church, the Cross was empty and Jesus was usually depicted as smiling, welcoming children, ascending to the Father, blessing. In her eyes, and in the eyes of many, we cling too much to the cross and fail to look beyond it.

‘…but we proclaim Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1.23)

I am almost tempted to agree with this criticism (indeed, it was a light-hearted discussion). The simple fact is, that all the jolly stuff is great and we must rejoice in the wonder of our Saviour, but it is in the Cross that I realised how much I am loved by God – when I am hurting, or see the world hurting, it is to the cross of Jesus that I turn.

Of course, all the joy and beauty of the world reveals God’s love to us – our lives, our families, our friends all show us God’s love. When we marvel at the beauty of nature, art and music we see reflected the beauty and love of the Creator. As Pope Benedict once beautifully explained in Verbum Domini:

All of creation reflects the eternal Word of God who created it and forms part of “a symphony of the word, … a single word expressed in multiple ways: ‘a polyphonic hymn’… [Yet] in this symphony one finds, at a certain point, what would be called in musical terms a ‘solo,’ a theme entrusted to a single instrument or voice which is so important that the meaning of the entire work depends on it. This ‘solo’ is Jesus”

Jesus is a ‘solo performance’ which speaks of the love of God and, within this solo, it is his Passion on the cross – embodied in countless crucifixes in churches and homes – that most fully reveals God’s love. Jesus in John’s Gospel talks about the Crucifixion as his moment of ‘glory’ – that is, the moment when God’s nature will be revealed, the presence of God most powerfully known. Every crucifix, in a direct and visceral way, re-presents the reality of God’s love for us embodied in Jesus.

For me, the crucifix is an unparalleled aid to contemplating the love of God. Many saints and missionaries have used the image to communicate the love of God beyond words to those who would listen. St. Paul of the Cross, whose feast day was last week, would always carry a crucifix with him to show people ‘the miracle of miracles of the love of God!’

During our times of emotional, physical or psychological suffering, we struggle to rationalise – struggle to ‘think straight’ – to understand the truth that others are trying to tell us, or to remember God’s goodness and blessing. But, when suffering overtakes us and rational arguments fail we gaze on upon the Cross, unfailing and unchanging for centuries, and know the visceral reality of God’s love. That Love which understands human suffering and redeems it.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12.1ff.