by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.
Earth is illumined by the sun more than by a distant star. No matter how dark the night, the sun’s rays are inescapable when daylight returns. On the other hand, the reason stars twinkle at night is that their light carried on the waves of our atmosphere actually misses our eyes for a moment, so that our pupil is illumined by them not at all. Thus St. Thomas is fond of saying that whatever is closer to a source of light is more illumined by that light. It may not seem an earth-shattering insight, but the applications can be profound.
If we look at the Church Militant, for example, we see that the first generation was closer to Christ and so more illumined. We are still today interpreting, unfolding, unpacking what they knew more simply and perfectly. It was revealed to them, and transmitted to us. Being closer to Christ, they were fired more ardently by His Sacred Heart. Or are we to think the Church Militant has more charity now than it did when the Blessed Virgin and the Apostles were alive? It has become more extensive but less intensive.
And St. Stephen was part of that first generation. He knew the Mother of God and the Apostles personally, in the flesh. No wonder then that his ardent zeal was so great, it was impossible to miss. And of course it rubbed certain people the wrong way. But notice in his death scene how closely he imitated Christ. St. Luke records both that at the crucifixion Jesus said, “Father, into Your hands I commend My Spirit,” and that at his stoning St. Stephen said, “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.” Luke likewise tells us that Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise,” and Stephen said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”; that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” and Stephen cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
We heard reference to this last prayer in the collect. The only difference between that prayer in the new liturgy and the old is a punctum and a per, a period and a preposition. In other words, it now says St. Stephen “knew how to pray even for his persecutors. Through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But the old says he “knew how to pray even for his persecutors to our Lord Jesus Christ.” Both, of course, are true. However you want to take it, his prayer was so powerful, it gained for the Church the man most guilty for Stephen’s death and turned him into St. Paul the Apostle.
From the more mundane to the more dramatic, we too have our enemies. Some vex and irk us; others censor us, take away our religious liberties, and would happily consign us to oblivion. But for them all we must pray, with as much selflessness and integrity as St. Stephen—that is, wholeheartedly. Was there a gift more pleasing to Christ than His first martyr’s forgiveness of his enemies? It was one of Jesus’ favorite themes: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” And, “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your transgressions.” And again, “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will My heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”
If that was Christ Jesus’ most cherished gift from St. Stephen, we have every reason to believe it is His favorite birthday gift from us as well. We have time during the Offertory. Think of an enemy or two, either individually or globally. But rather than burn anew with self-righteous vengeance, recall God in the manger and His first soldier and their forgiveness. Pray the Lord’s Prayer for your enemies and savor the words of pardon. And then come, partake of Christ’s gift to you, His Body offered for the forgiveness of the world.
One of the most beautiful things about the mysteries of our faith is that, even though we return to them year after year, they can be as fresh and amazing as the first time we heard of them, if only we turn our hearts to them with humility and love.
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