Feast of St. Stephen, Proto-martyr

The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen (1625), Rembrandt can Rijn (1606-1669), Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon.
We had a beautiful Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes & St. Joseph yesterday in Leigh-on-Sea. The story of the pro to-martyr St. Stephen is one I find very moving. We read in Acts that it comes about as a result of the witness he is living every day, the powerful love he displays, and the fact that he performs "great wonders and signs among the people." (Acts 6:8). He is killed in an act of mob violence because his interlocutors could not deny the truth and wisdom he proclaimed, so they silenced him by stoning him. The evangelist deliberately portrays these events in a way that reminds the reader of the Passion of the Christ. There is testimony from false witnesses (6:6:13: Mt 26:60), reports that Jesus will destroy the Temple (6:14; Mt 26:61), visions of the Son of Man in Heaven (7:56; Lk 22:69), prayers of surrender to God (7:59; Lk 23:46), and petitions of forgiveness for the executioners (7:60; Lk 23:34).

Stephen's martyrdom, willed and endured, is the prototype of what it will look like to live as a Christian in the first four centuries of the Church.

In today's society when we think of martyrdom, we think of religious fundamentalists killing themselves in order to kill as many "infidels" as they can, in the name of Allah. This idea of Martyrdom could not be further removed from a Christian understanding.

The meaning of martyrdom is radically different for Christians and Muslims as Professor Donald DeMarco explains in this article. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that " [m]artyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death" (CCC 2473). According to St. Gregory of Nazianzus, it is mere rashness to seek death, but it is cowardly to refuse it. In the modern age, G.K. Chesterton has remarked that the Christian "must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine." Christians understand the word comes from the Greek μάρτυς, mártys, signifying a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal observation.

The difference in understanding is based on how, according to their religious beliefs, they look upon each other. The Christian sees the Muslim, as well as anyone else, as his neighbour whom he is commanded to love. The Muslim quite easily, and consistent with the Qur'an, sees his fellow Christian as an infidel. In this purview, it is at least theoretically possible, given the Islamic tradition, for a Muslim to involve himself in a "martyrdom operation" in which he, together with Christians and other "infidels," are killed (in the name of Allah, to be sure). This is certainly an important concern and can be a serious obstacle in the path of peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians. Inter-religious dialogue is most desirable, but its basis must be in truth and not mere wishful thinking.

Christians do not seek martyrdom. They seek love, friendship, peace, and the God who has instituted these values and has commanded their adoption. They also hope that their Muslim neighbours will reciprocate in kind. They do not desire martyrdom either for themselves or for their Muslim neighbors. But they will accept martyrdom rather than renounce their faith. In this way, the Christian is a witness, as the word "martyr" suggests. But he is primarily a witness to love, and, like His Holiness John Paul II, a witness to hope.

Fr. Kevin enrols new Servers into the Guild of St. Stephen


  1. Meanwhile, you have a Sunshine Award.


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